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Julie Boulianne, Alma oppressa

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Robert Rowat

Apart from occasional trips back to her native Quebec for opera and recital dates, mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne conducts her career primarily in Europe.

And what a career it is: In December she made her role debut as Donna Elvira ("the highlight of the evening") in Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris; in September she made her debut at Toulouse's Théâtre du Capitole in one of the title roles in Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict (one reviewer astutely praised her distinctively rich timbre). Coming up in 2017, she stars in Opéra de Limoges's production of Rossini's La Cenerentola, and in May, audiences in Quebec City can hear her sing Rosina in Opéra de Québec's Barber of Seville.

Boulianne does make time in her opera schedule for regular concerts with Montreal harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour, with whom she has developed a remarkable complicity. Alma oppressa, due out Jan. 27 on Analekta Records, evolved from one such concert, part of Beauséjour's popular Clavecin en concert series in Old Montreal. It took place in June at the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Bonsecours and the musicians hit the studio (actually, a church in Beloeil, Que.) in the following weeks to record it for posterity.

If this is starting to sound familiar, it's because Boulianne, Beauséjour and company earned a Juno nomination for 2014's Handel & Porpora, produced under nearly identical circumstances, and their new album is in many respects its sequel.

Simply put, Alma oppressa is a tremendous accomplishment. The opening title track, a bravura aria from Vivaldi's La fida ninfa, shows Boulianne to be in command of a wide vocal range with breath support to sustain long, thrilling lines of coloratura. By way of contrast, track 2 (a Vivaldi aria from the pastiche Andromeda liberata) is a languorous duet with the solo baroque violin of Chantale Rémillard — an opportunity to luxuriate in Boulianne's creamy timbre, unforced vocal production and tasteful phrasing.

The Handel selections are just as convincing: "Cara speme" from Giulio Cesare, with its spare continuo accompaniment, is chamber music at its expressive best; the sudden pianissimo in the ritornello of the familiar "Laschia ch'io pianga" gave us chills; and if there's a better recording of Tirinto's aria, "Se potessero i sospir' miei" from Imeneo, we honestly don't think we could handle it.

When they're not backing the soloist, Beauséjour and the musicians of Clavecin en Concert punctuate the program with instrumental suites, which are more than mere interludes among the arias. These musicians enjoy making music together, and it shows.

Alma oppressa will be released on Jan. 27. You can pre-order the album here.

Go behind the scenes of Alma oppressa with this making-of video:

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