The concerto premiere, understandably, got the most pre-concert press attention. But it was the performance of Ernest Chausson’s Poéme de l’amour et de la mer with Clémentine Margaine, that provided the high point of the evening.

Chausson’s output is fairly circumscribed, in no small part due to his early death at age 44 in a biking accident. Yet the best of his music is crafted with uncommon care and striking originality. It’s hard not to feel that the Poéme de l’amour et de la mer is Chausson’s masterpiece–especially given the extraordinary performance by Margaine and the CSO Thursday night.

An extended vocal scena for mezzo-soprano and large orchestra, the work is set to two long poems by Maurice Bouchor, centered on a depiction of the sea as metaphor for a tragic, failed love affair. If Boucher’s poetry is not exactly timeless, Chausson’s scoring for large orchestra is masterful–by turns sumptuous, evocative, and intimate yet always skillfully balanced with the soloist.

Clémentine Margaine is currently enjoying a breakout career. The French mezzo made a notable Lyric Opera debut as Dulcinée in Massenet’s Don Quichotte in 2016, earned roaring acclaim a month later in her Met bow as Carmen.

The singer inhabited Chausson’s melancholy protagonist as completely as if she were portraying a character in a staged opera. Margaine’s dusky voice is ideal for this music–refined and flexible yet with reserves of power. Her singing of the French text was, of course, as assured and as idiomatic as one would expect. Yet most impressive was how her vocalism was always on point, expressive and engaged with the text–as with her numbed tone at the climactic word “oubli” (oblivion). Margaine conveyed the shifting moods with a natural, unforced quality that was all the more affecting for its restraint and understatement.

The singer also benefited from quite glorious playing of the orchestra under Muti’s direction. The conductor was at his finest in this unlikely score; Muti provided Margaine with glovelike support and artful balancing of the large forces, judging the ebb and flow of this music with a natural, breathing rubato. Apart from an overloud oboe at the coda from guest Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida (principal of the Pittsburgh Symphony), the orchestra playing was as stunning as it was sensitive, making one marvel at the ingenuity and sheer beauty of Chausson’s music.

Chicago Classical Review

“In Chausson’s exquisite “Poeme de l’amour et de la Mer” (“Poem of Love and the Sea”), it is the human voice that is of the essence, and it would be difficult to imagine a more ravishingly beautiful one than that belonging to Clementine Margaine, the French mezzo-soprano. Making a memorable debut with the CSO in this tale of feverish, perfume-infused, youthful passion that is destined to wither and die and leave heartbreak in its wake, Margaine’s velvety, unforced singing fully captured the lush, lyrical poetry and intimate emotion of the work in the most seamless yet entirely natural, unaffected way. And she forged an instantaneous connection with both the orchestra and her audience. Meanwhile, both the Chausson and new Higdon piece will be on the CSO’s Feb. 9 program at New York’s Carnegie Hall.”

Chicago Sun Times

“Subtleties of a more sensuously Gallic sort permeate Ernest Chausson’s orchestral song setting “Poeme de l’amour et de la mer” (“Poem of Love and the Sea”) of 1893, two songs of a springtime love that has faded. The idiomatic soloist was French mezzo-soprano Clementine Margaine, a fine singer well remembered for her alluring Dulcinee in Lyric Opera’s production of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” last season. With her smoky timbre and deep musical commitment, she refused to allow the music’s sense of veiled regret to devolve into unrelieved dolorousness.”

Chicago Tribune

“Muti had the great luck to have the emerging Clementine Margaine as his mezzo-soprano soloist. Her expressive use of the French text, mesmerizing concentration, and depth of tone was a deeply memorable combination.”

The Inquirer

Chausson’s nuanced, lapidary idiom grew out of the major musical influences of his time, the end of the 19th century, and Muti’s rendering of the Poème seemed to favor a substantial Wagnerian sound over something lighter and more suggestive à la Debussy.

The round, room-filling mezzo-soprano of Clémentine Margaine was a good match for this interpretation, lustrous on top and well-supported in the low register, to which the music descended often as night and sadness closed around the speaker in the poem. Her paring away of vibrato to a flat, lifeless tone in the piece’s last despairing moments was deeply affecting.”

New York Classical Review

“The mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine was a superb soloist in the Chausson, richly sonorous and warmly expressive, and the pairing of that work with the Britten was striking.”

The New York Times

“The highlight of the evening was an exquisite account of Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer. Two orchestral songs, connected by an instrumental interlude, a rarely heard masterpiece of late French romanticism. This is a setting of two poems about lost love by Maurice Bouchor, “The Flower of the Waters” and “The Death of Love,” sung here flawlessly by mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine. Playing with exceeding polish, each phrase well edited and honed, Muti and the CSO allowed the pillowy textures and subtle melancholy in Chausson’s rhapsodic orchestral writing to gently accompany and lift up Margaine’s smoky, haunting vocalism and exceptional diction, the balance between soloist and orchestra always right.”


“First mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine gave a persuasive account of Chausson’s dark song cycle Poème de l’amour et de la mer.”

Financial Times

“Clémentine Margaine was the superb solo protagonist. This French mezzo has garnered accolades in operatic circles recently and for good reason. Margaine utilizes her smoky timbre and sizable instrument to dramatic effect. Her fine sense of Gallic style and supple vocal inflections are matched by strong theatrical instincts. Margaine’s regal bearing and facial expressions encompassed the sadness and tragedy of the text. As the protagonist’s mood turned to despair, her declamation became more intense without sacrificing vocal beauty. Margaine’s timbre turned pale as she intoned the final phrase “notre amour est mort à jamais’ (our love is dead forever). She is a terrific singing actress.”

South Florida Classical Review