Twitter and Wikipedia aren’t always the most reliable sources, but if they say today is Patricia Petibon’s birthday, that’s as good a reason as any to celebrate this musician. Not just “opera singer” or “soprano,” but “musician” in the sense of a touching, imaginative musical artist whose instrument happens to be voice.
I’ve always found that voice sunny, lightweight and beautifully transparent, but understand how critics such as Robert Levine might feel that “[her] voice is an acquired taste.” Yet even Levine admires Petibon’s complete engagement with a text. She turns “A-t-on Jamais Souffert Une Plus Rude Peine” (“Has Anyone Suffered More Torment?”) into an elegantly wrenching portrayal of Jonathan’s choice between his father and his best friend:
Petibon’s voice has matured since the debut recital where she sang this Charpentier air (and since Levine’s review). There’s added opacity as well as a creamy middle register. She’s also broadened her sense of theatricality and sense of humor, while keeping the same attractive sheen in the upper register. Check out the soaring lines and seductive rhythms of Sartorio’s “Quando Voglio” (“When I Want…”):
Do Petibon’s looks hurt? In opera, perhaps: trim figures and pretty faces are often suspect among connoisseurs, a sign of style traded for substance. Petibon’s appearance, combined with her creative, sometimes wild vocals and theatrics, doesn’t always win converts. Her scene from Candide might be over the top (and even voice teachers might not know what she’s doing with her tongue), yet her diction is clear, and she gives Bernstein’s fluffy coloratura a sarcastic edge:
Yet when Mozart parts the brooding minor key clouds of the “Kyrie” in his C Minor Mass [at 2:13 in the following clip], it’s clear that aside from the rapid-fire ornaments and colorful hairstyles and costumes, Petibon can simply, understatedly and beautifully, sing:
Her take on one of Cole Porter’s most bittersweet moments only reinforces that point:
Watching Petibon in rehearsal, the way she throws herself physically as well as vocally into every syllable, there’s a sense of respect for the score without slavery to it, and a welcome air of experimentation. If her voice seems strident rather than sweet to some, or if the outer edges of her upper register occasionally turn choppy, above all she’s incapable of singing an insincere note:
Petibon’s interpretations are probably too individual to ever earn a place as “reference recording” for any particular work. Good for her. Whatever the facts underneath those dots on the page, they’re not half as interesting as the music she creates.