Friday Fun: Les oiseaux dans la charmille (The Doll Aria) – Offenbach

Time for a final fling with opera before we plunge into Advent and my annual Advent Calendar for the next few weeks!  Today’s aria is a favourite of mine, because you can do so much with it, and because it contains so much potential for humour, pathos, and creepiness.  This version contains all three of those aspects…

The Doll Aria comes from Offenbach’s rather strange and disturbing opera Les Contes D’Hoffmann, in which the protagonist keeps meeting and falling in love with the same woman in different incarnations – first she is a clockwork doll, later a girl who will die if she ever sings, and finally a courtesan who plans to steal his reflection.  Strange to say, none of these love affairs end well – in every case, the woman’s guardian, parent or keeper plays a rather sinister role – and our coloratura soprano gets not one, but three death scenes, thus creating a new record in the ‘soprano falls and love, then dies’ school of opera.

Les Oiseaux Dans La Charmille is the aria sung by Olympia, the clockwork doll, prompting Hoffmann to fall in love with her.  The words are very simple, and don’t have much relevance to the opera, but here they are anyway, in French and English:

Les oiseaux dans la charmille
Dans les cieux l’astre du jour,
Tout parle à la jeune fille d’amour!
Ah! Voilà la chanson gentille
La chanson d’Olympia! Ah!Tout ce qui chante et résonne
Et soupire, tour à tour,
Emeut son coeur qui frissonne d’amour!
Ah! Voilà la chanson mignonne
La chanson d’Olympia! Ah!
The birds in the arbor,
The sky’s daytime star,
Everything speaks to a young girl of love!
Ah! This is the gentle song,
The song of Olympia! Ah!Everything that sings and resonates
And sighs, in turn,
Moves his heart, which shudders of love!
Ah! This is the lovely song,
The song of Olympia! Ah!

I absolutely adore all Natalie Dessay’s interpretations of this song, but the one above is particularly dreamlike, with its creepy giant dolls and rolling eyeballs.   Dessay has sung the part of Olympia at least five times that I’ve found evidence of – for contrast, here’s her Olympia as a patient in what looks as though it might be a psychiatric hospital – it’s much slower and more poignant than most performances of this song, and I think might actually be her best version of the piece.  (Incidentally, I’m amused to note that Dessay always finds some way to stick in some extra high notes – in this version, she goes up to a G two and a half octaves above middle C at the end, where everyone else resolve to the G an octave below this)  And then there is this version, in which she seems to be a slightly nymphomaniac Barbie Doll.  And if you think that one is indecent, I suggest that you do not Google Patricia Petibon’s version, which keeps on being taken down from YouTube for general X-ratedness.

Of course, plenty of other people have performed Olympia.  I just find it fascinating to contrast one person’s performances in different contexts.  But for a very traditional style of doll, I can highly recommend Diane Damrau’s version, which is perfectly sung, with excellent clockwork gestures.  Another more traditional performance is that of Luciana Serra, which I find vocally absolutely fascinating – she keeps her voice extremely even and precise and staccato, giving each note equal weight, and uses hardly any vibrato and fewer changes of tempo than most, which really works to give an impressively doll-like, clock-work effect.  I’ll have to look for more of her work, because she really is amazing.

I know it’s not really in the spirit of Friday Fun, but I feel that the only possible way to end this post is with the end of Olympia’s story.  So if you don’t want to see a sad ending, don’t click on this link.

Tomorrow – Advent!


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