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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 9

Marie-Nicole Lemieux: Coming Home

by Wah Keung Chan / June 10, 2009

Version française...

It has been 8 years since La Scena Musicale met the voice next door, Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Charming, good-natured and humble, Lemieux carried a natural voice and musicality that had taken the world by storm just the year before, winning two competitions in three weeks. Although much has changed – career, marriage and motherhood – Lemieux is still that same giddy friend. However, her success is really about hard work and artistry.

Currently singing Mrs. Quickly at Glynebourne in Verdi’s Falstaff, the last 9 years have been a whirlwind. Recording artist, opera singer, recitalist, concert singer are labels that hang easily on Lemieux, making her Canada’s leading mezzo-contralto today, and fulfilling her promise of filling Maureen Forrester’s shoes.

The single biggest change Lemieux cites, however, is motherhood; Lemieux gave birth to her daughter, Marion, one and a half years ago. “Since giving birth, the voice is more fragile,” said Lemieux, who admits to having allergies and sinus trouble, requiring surgery. Lemieux had to reschedule a much-anticipated recital with soprano Karina Gauvin for the André Turp Society in 2007. “From 2000 to 2007, I didn’t have more than two weeks off, and when I won the Queen Elisabeth Competition, I had only been working two years with my professor Marie Daveluy.” During her convalescence, Lemieux took three straight months to work daily on her voice with Daveluy “on all the faults and all the qualities,” heeding the advice from Kent Nagano to take the time to learn proper technique.

In 2001, Lemieux admitted to LSM that she tired easily when speaking to friends. “I’m less afraid and much less tired when I sing,” said Lemieux. “The low notes are easier, as are the high notes. We worked on the legato and the timbre, and the voice has started to expand, become easier. In 2001, my high and low notes were good, but lacked homogeneity. We always work on the breathing and projection, and also the aspect of floating; each note must have the support of the diaphragm, and each must have the resonance.”

With her dark timbre, Lemieux has always been touted as Canada’s next great contralto, although some critics have quietly questioned whether she is not a mezzo. Lemieux admits to working on that aspect, “For the low notes, the voice must project without forcing. You have to use all the resonators, balancing the space in front and back. The tension is more demanding when singing softly. Christa Ludwig told me, “Do not try to sing louder, try to sing more beautifully, because the beautiful sound will project better”. Gradually, I’ve expanded my range. Now it’s a matter of confidence.” Listening to her new recording of Schumann lieder (see review), you notice the work has paid off.


Since winning the Queen Elisabeth Competition, Lemieux has been a regular recording artist, beginning with a fine disc of Berlioz’s Nuits d’été, Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder as a prize of her victory. A contract with Analekta produced three recordings, Handel’s Italian Cantatas with Luc Beauséjour, a disc of Vivaldi and Scalatti’s sacred music with Tafelmusik and a recital of Brahms Lieder. Since 2004, Lemieux has had an exclusive contract with Naïve, which has produced five recordings, including three discs of Vivaldi operas and sacred music, and is expected to produce about one or two recordings a year going forward.

If the helpings of Handel and Vivaldi lead you to conclude that Lemieux has become a baroque specialist, you are partially correct. “I love baroque music, but I also love singing Romantic music,” said Lemieux. “There is a parallel world of recordings and opera. In opera, there are singers who are stars with great careers, but they are not well known because they don’t have any recordings.”

Lemieux’s operatic career has taken her further afield from her 2002 debut as Cornelia in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the Canadian Opera Company, where she acquitted herself well in a star-studded cast including Ewa Podlès, Daniel Taylor, Isabel Bayrakdarian and Brian Asawa. Over the last two years, her operatic roles in Europe have been squarely in the Romantic: Ursule and Anna in Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict and Les Troyens, respectively, Catherine in Honneger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, Flosshilde in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Geneviève in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, a role in Gounod’s Faust and Enesco’s Œdipe and Mrs. Quickly in Verdi’s Falstaff. And she has graduated to the lead in Giulio Cesare in Paris. Whereas Lemieux was a bit stiff in 2002, for Glyndebourne, the Financial Times calls her Quickly “engaging.”

Clearly she has caught the opera bug, especially when she speaks about her present and future projects. “Verdi wanted Quickly to be a comedian more than have a good voice. She is in the middle of all the action. It’s great to have an important role that sings, amuses and moves.” More Verdi is on the horizon: Lemieux will sing in the composer’s Requiem in 2010 in Orléans and later in Vienna. Her acclaimed recording of Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso was done in concert version, and the same cast, including Philip Jarousky, will be reunited in a staged version in 2011. For her next 10 years in career, she rolls off her dreams, “I would like to redo Les Troyens and one day the role of Dido, and Giulio Cesare on stage since the other time it was in concert, Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, Polina in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, Olga in Eugene Onegin, Waltrab in Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, and Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri and Tancredi, and every mezzo’s dream, Carmen. For the first time, I don’t want to be too exposed,” said Lemieux, who is coy about whether she’s been working on it.

Maybe some Carmen arias will appear in her next CD, devoted to French Romantic operatic arias, slated for 2010. But as her current CD shows, lieder and concerts remain passions for her. “I would really like to perform again Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, Das Lied von der Erde, and his 2nd Symphony, and take on Prokoviev’s Alexander Nevsky

Coming Home

Following the run of Falstaff’s at Glyndebourne, in July, the Lemieux family (Marie-Nicole, her husband and Marion) will return home to Canada. “It represents the end of a difficult period. In the last year and a half, we’ve only been home for 4 weeks,” said Lemieux. “For the voice, it’s great because it’s one month here and one month there, but I would not have been able to survive without my husband and baby with me. I missed my family enormously.” Thankfully, Canadian audiences will see her for the next six months. Lemieux teams up with Les Violons du Roy at the Lanaudière Festival in July and then with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra at the Knowlton Festival. Finally, Lemieux makes her Montreal Opera debut as Zita in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi in September. “I hope to be singing more and more interesting roles at the Montreal Opera,” said Lemieux. n

Marie-Nicole Lemieux in Performance:

› -With Les Violons du Roy performing Mozart, Hadyn, and Gluck at the Lanaudière Festival, July 17 (Joliette Amphitheatre, 8 PM)

› -With the Montreal Symphony Orchestra performing Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody at the Knowlton Festival, August 7 (Knowlton Festival Theatre, 8 PM) www.festivaldeknowlton.com

› -With the Montreal Opera as Zita in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, September 26, 30 and October 3, 5, and 8. (Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, 8 PM)

Career Highlights

In November, Marie-Nicole Lemieux will celebrate 10 years of her
professional career. Here are some of her highlights:

› Winning the Queen Elizabeth Competition in 2001

Orlando furioso at Théatre des Champs-Elysées in 2003

› Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with Kurt Masur

Das Lied von der Erde at the Club Musical de Québec

› Schumann Recital at Orford

› Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été, with Michel Plasson

Schumann : Frauenliebe und -leben

(Joseph K. So)

Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto; Daniel Blumenthal, piano

Naïve V5159 (64 min)


Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux continues her felicitous association with the French Naïve label. This new disc of Schumann songs amply demonstrates why she is rapidly becoming the most recorded, and the most important, contralto of our time. The voice is simply gorgeous – a warm, rich, smooth, effortlessly produced sound backed by a flawless technique and exemplary musical intelligence. For those of us who grew up with the voice of the great Maureen Forrester, Lemieux’s timbre in these songs eerily recalls that of a young Forrester. All the songs on this disc are from 1840, when the manic-depressive Schumann was at his creative zenith. The two song cycles Liederkreis and Frauenliebe und leben, plus four other songs including Der Nussbaum and Widmung, both from Myrthen, Op.25, are extremely popular. Lemieux manages to make these chestnuts sound fresh. One is struck by the simplicity and sincerity of her approach to these songs, sung with great attention to textual meaning, but not a hint of artifice or idiosyncratic mannerism. Whether it’s a song requiring a big dramatic statement (Waldesgespräch) or quiet introspection (Mondnacht), Lemieux meets its demands with unfailing beauty of tone. The work of American collaborative pianist Daniel Blumenthal is outstanding. The disc was recorded at Domaine Forget in November 2008. The engineering is superb – the sound is warm, not overly reverberant, with just the right balance between the singer and the piano. The accompanying booklet contains track listings, an interesting essay by Claire Badiou on Schumann and his “Song Year”, artist bios, and texts in German, French and English. This is a remarkable disc that should be in every song lover’s collection.

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