Chants d’auvergne – Opera Holland Park, London 

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Composer: Joseph Canteloube 

Soprano: Anna Patalong

Conductor: Sonia Ben-Santamaria

To hear this performance of a selection of Canteloube’s Chants d’auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne) in the cool of a summer’s evening at Opera Holland Park is a magical experience. “Sing of your country, of your land,” Canteloube was once advised and his subsequent collection of folk songs from rural France evokes a pastoral idyll of sun-baked meadows, mountain streams and bird calls in which a shepherdess sings exuberantly of love.

Where so many English folk songs are dark – often a young maiden is cruelly betrayed by a lover – these from the Auvergne, sung in the original Occitan language, frankly celebrate passion. “We live for the pleasures of love” concludes one song. “When a girl wants to marry” goes “L’aïò de rotso”, “Don’t give her water from the spring,/ She’ll make love better if she drinks some wine!”. The shepherdess is confident of her allure: in “Baïlèro”, the best-known of the songs, she entices the shepherd across the river with a sly promise of finer pasture her side. “Fortunate is the wife/Whose man is the one she wants!” another song begins before concluding defiantly “more fortunate is she/ Who doesn’t have one”.

Acclaimed soprano Anna Patalong gives an exquisitely nuanced rendering of the songs, attentive to their playfulness and plangency. Singing to the accompaniment of a harp and wind quintet, where most recordings feature a full orchestra, Patalong never seeks to dominate, allowing the voices of the instruments their full value. This makes for exceptional music. Each of the instrumentalists – Charlotte Ashton (flute), Daniel Bates (oboe), Amy Harman (bassoon), Sally Pryce (harp), James Pillai (horn) and Peter Sparks (clarinet) – brings out the richly evocative quality of Canteloube’s scoring, conveying both the thrilling, leaping qualities of the music and the quiet moments of expectancy or melancholy.

Sonia Ben-Stantamaria conducts with mesmerising energy, moving, almost dancing, with grace and agility. She is deeply attuned to the score, creating a particular intimacy between soloists and players. Her passion for the Occitan language is evident. She comes from Toulouse, once the Occitan capital and is part of a powerful revival of interest in this language, once used by the troubadour poets and formerly spoken across a vast area of southern France, north-western Italy and northern Spain. It was suppressed, however, following a ruling in 1794, that France should be unified by one language, banned in schools and all official contexts. The speaking of Occitan became vilified and despite the fact that only ten per cent of the population at the time were French speakers, it was deemed a lowly patois. Occitan speakers were deliberately shamed in the nineteenth century: “It is forbidden to spit on the ground and speak patois” painted on school walls.

Canteloube therefore is so much more than a minor collector of these beautiful songs. He played a key role in this linguistic revival, his project to collect and arrange native folksongs across the whole Occitan-speaking region beginning in the 1920s, took him over thirty years to complete.

This extraordinary performance celebrates this survival of a precious language and Canteloube’s exceptional settings.

Reviewed on 18 July 2021

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