“What I like most is this sense that you are telling a story. You are a narrator.” Marianne Crebassa is describing singing Maurice Ravel’s song cycle, Shéhérazade, which depicts the greatest storyteller of them all, whose 1001 tales in The Arabian Nights ultimately save her life. “The more I sing,” she ponders, “the more I realise that I love telling stories.” In a bustling bistrot in Paris’ Marais district, Crebassa reflects on the art of French song, its importance in her artistic life and her approach to recitals.

Marianne Crebassa © Simon Fowler | Erato
Marianne Crebassa
© Simon Fowler | Erato

Shéhérazade is the centrepiece of her French song recital programme with Turkish pianist Fazıl Say, recorded for an award-winning Erato disc entitled Secrets. “I find songs more intimate,” she explains, “and that’s why I wanted my second album to be a song recital because I needed to find a way to express myself and that’s much more difficult when you’re playing an operatic role. But with works like Shéhérazade and Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, you can reveal more of yourself. They’re more intimate than any operatic aria so I can say things that I’ve never said before. I can be more Marianne!” she exclaims, her dark eyes flashing expressively. “Fazil wanted to include some really famous songs, but what do they say about me? They’ve been recorded so many times by so many great artists. I wanted to take a risk and record a very calm and poetic album. Everything is so hectic around us right now. I needed intimacy and to sing from the heart.”

Ravel’s Shéhérazade has an erotic, perfumed quality to it. Set to three overheated texts by the poet writing under the magnificently Wagnerian pseudonym “Tristan Klingsor”, the cycle doesn’t feature any of the usual characters within the tales, but on Shéhérazade herself and, as Crebassa explains, her captivity and what happens between those stories. “I didn’t know Klingsor’s poems before learning the songs, so it’s difficult for me to disassociate the text from the music. So when I read them, I hear the music and that colours the text.”

Experience has brought about a new appreciation for the poems. “When I was younger, I was more focused on being confident at singing the notes and making beautiful music. Of course, the text was important but I was not mature enough. Now I really enjoy playing with it, acting this cycle. That sensuality is something that you don’t find everywhere – maybe a little bit in Mélisande, who can be a bit elusive, but she is not as sensual as Shéhérazade. Here, you have this picture of a young woman, who is mysterious but at the same time quite expressive, no?”  

Last year, Crebassa made her debut in Debussy’s opera, in Ruth Berghaus’ production at the Staatsoper Berlin. How, I wondered, does her operatic experience feed into her recitals and vice versa? “Both ways. I’m very happy that I sang all these Debussy songs before approaching the opera. By singing Bilitis, I’d already discovered all these vocal colours for when I started singing Mélisande. Singing Shéhérazade also helped. But then, after I’d sung Mélisande, I gave another recital and my agent said my Bilitis was much better than before! It was in the storytelling; because I had played the role on the stage and allowed my body to move more, I could find the right balance in recitals between storytelling gestures and stillness. I like to feel that I’m free and not rooted to the spot in front of people, just singing. You have to capture the audience with maybe a small movement... but not too much!”

What are the differences, I wonder, between Ravel and Debussy as song composers? “There are small differences. With Ravel, everything is written in the score. What is specific in the text is that the mute syllable in French – for example “petite” – sometimes Ravel chooses to pronounce the “e” at the end of the word, or sometimes not… and he always makes it clear. He’s very specific about where you can cut words too. With Debussy, it’s more subtle; it is written but his meaning isn’t always as clear.”

I heard Crebassa sing Shéhérazade with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse in Paris in 2017, where her plum-coloured lower register impressed and where she imbued Asie’s repetitions of “Je voudrais voir...” with an increasing sense of intoxication and breathless excitement. Does she prefer, I ask, singing the cycle with orchestra or with piano? “That’s a good question!” she nods. “It’s difficult to say because when it’s with Fazil it’s always something special. Because of his background, he has such a keen sense of this orientalist colouring. When you play it with an occidental orchestra, sometimes they do not dare to be free. This is music that should somehow sound a little bit improvised. Whenever Fazil plays it, every time it’s different. Yet Ravel was one of the best orchestrators ever. I like the finesse of his writing and the way his orchestration heightens the text. There is subtlety, yet at the same time it can be very powerful.” 

Marianne Crebassa © Simon Fowler | Erato
Marianne Crebassa
© Simon Fowler | Erato

Apart from Ravel and Debussy, Crebassa loves the songs of Poulenc and the Fauré cycles Mirages and La bonne chanson. “In Mirages, I really like the recording of Gérard Souzay – one of the great baritones. When they are sung by a baritone it is like he is speaking to us, so beautiful. I like it when people cross gender boundaries, like mezzos singing songs originally intended for baritones, such as Winterreise, or for a man to sing a poem which is feminine.”

In French song, she also admires Frederica von Stade, whose colours are “just perfect” for Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne, which reflect Crebassa’s home region. “My parents still speak Occitan. I understand it a little bit but I don’t speak it.” Foremost among interpreters of French song, however, is Régine Crespin, “For me, she is one of the best in Les Nuits d'été... it’s not perfect but it’s what I like. She takes liberties with the score, but it’s still incredible. The silvery colours of her voice – and her intensity!”

Crebassa has yet to sing Berlioz’s cycle… and is in no rush. “I want to wait before approaching these sort of cycles because it needs maturity. Even if you have the voice, you need to have lived, to experience things in life, to feel deeply the subtext of all this.” She performs a few recitals a year, easily enough when repeating her programme with Say – “That’s the benefit of recording – you repeat it so often that you could never forget this music!” – but with her other pianist, Alphonse Cemin, she prefers to develop programmes by stealth, adding new twists each season.

Marianne Crebassa © Simon Fowler | Erato
Marianne Crebassa
© Simon Fowler | Erato

“The pressures on young artists today is immense. We don’t let things mature enough in life. Everything has to go fast. You accept one opera, then you have a recital in the middle, and then you fly to somewhere else. So many artists you see – and they are great artists and they have many recordings – but they arrive for a recital, they are between two productions, and they didn’t have proper time to prepare, so they arrive with the score – and of course, the recital is good, but it’s not the best experience for the audience.” Preparation is key. Crebassa is adamant that she prefers to memorise scores and sing them by heart. “You make a better connection with the audience. The only drawback is you’re afraid to make a mistake or to forget something but luckily I have the kind of confidence to say ‘What the hell!’”.

Crebassa heads to London to sing Shéhérazade next month and we reflect how well French song is appreciated there. “In England, it is the best place – even better than singing French in France! You know the repertoire. You know it better than French people! It’s lucky that you were here to support Berlioz!” Let’s wait for her to tell new stories when she does take Les Nuits d’été into her repertoire… a delicious prospect.

 

Click here to see Marianne Crebassa's upcoming performances.