If you had a look at the Menhuin Festival programme, you were probably just as impressed by it as I was. The sheer number of world-class artists to choose from made deciding which performance to see tricky.
Generally speaking, they say you can’t go wrong if you follow your heart, and mine was in the mood for romance. Lucky for me, Julia Lezhneva was scheduled to sing a programme of Love Arias at the Church in Saanen. And she did not disappoint.
Lezhneva delivered a mesmerizing exploration of love through her flawless renditions of arias by Porpora, Graun, Handel and Vivaldi. Accompanied by the Chamber Orchestra of Basel, a longtime partner of the Menuhin Festival, Lezhneva’s angelic voice at times sprightly, at times spiritual, at times distraught filled the Church in Saanen.
Lezhneva’s record label, Decca Classics, says it’s often claimed that a particular artist is “born to sing”, but rarely is it so literally true as in the case of Julia Lezhneva. Her future as an opera singer was foretold the moment she was born into a family of geophysicists on the Russian island of Sakhalin in 1989. Lezhneva says: “Apparently when I was delivered, I shouted out so suddenly that the doctor almost dropped me and he said to my mum ‘she’s a born opera singer!’ Imagine that! It’s such an amazing thing.” Having since graced the world’s most prestigious stages, including The Bolshoi Theater, The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, Zurich Tonhalle and Lincoln Center in New York, this summer she returned to the Menuhin Festival for the second time. Her first appearance in the Saanenland was in 2016 when she stepped in for Diana Damrau to present a programme focused on Italian opera.
Since its founding in 1957, one of the Menuhin Festival’s main tenets has been to foster and promote the talent of exceptional young artists. But the Festival’s interest in including younger generations goes beyond performers. Before the Love Arias concert began, youths between the ages of 12 to 20 were given the opportunity to meet with Lezhneva, violinist Nina Candik, and the Festival’s music educator, Anne-Christine Cettou to talk about classical music, hear from the artists themselves, and have a behind-the-scene look. This was part of the Festival’s Discovery programme for children and young adults, which aims to awaken their enthusiasm for classical music.
After the special introductory session, it was time for the concert. The Love Arias programme took on a conversational tone between the instrumental pieces performed by the Basel Chamber Orchestra, accompanied by Simon Lilly on the hornpipe for a rendition of Let the Bright Seraphim from Handel’s Samson, and Lezhneva’s serene voice. All of which were perfectly enhanced by the natural acoustics of the Saanen Church. Lezhneva’s performance exuded romance convincingly, her singing was deep and meaningful, and her demeanor thankful.
The audience was also appreciative and after much clapping and foot stomping at the end of the concert we were rewarded with two encores. The last of which was the icing on the cake: a memorable rendition of Handel’s Lascia la Spina Cogni la Rosa, which ended the evening on a high yet thought-provoking note.
If love is an emotional rollercoaster then the performers of the Love Arias programme replicated these feelings perfectly. A true delight.
Anne Christine Kempton