Cher Public

The butterfly effect

Midway through the first portion of Wednesday’s New York City recital debut of Mme. Natalie Dessay I became very distracted by the persistent urge to try to characterize the experience of what was happening on stage, for this was, by no means, an ordinary recital and no ordinary debutante.  

More likely it was many other things: one of the major themes playing out before us was “The Return of the Prodigal Daughter.” The return, that is, of a once-upon-a-time sensational diva of hyperkinetics and phenomenally high-flying vocal acrobatics, chastened and laid low by myriad vocal indispositions, maladies, you-name-it, now coming back to make, shortly before the age of forty-nine, her debut as a concert recital artist here in what is probably the most prestigious venue for such in New York City. I had feared all sorts of shenanigans and worried that I should not even attend for its potential depressing effect and the pall it would cast over a faraway memory of her glory days.

In the end, it had not that effect but something far different and ultimately an experience which became strangely transformative and touching through some kind of alchemy: a kind of Ave atque vale of a most sincere and genuinely deep feeling for a diva who had once touched many people on various levels with her unusual gifts as a true singing actress, and our need, her need, to move right along and get on with it all.

For me, the old Natalie was not there. Her place had been taken away by yet another Natalie, perhaps someone who had been buried within her the whole time and yet had never been allowed out of its chrysalis? I don’t honestly know, though once she gave an interview in Opera News, about a dozen years ago or so, and was quoted as saying she would like to be a dramatic soprano. At the time I read this it struck me as quite an odd desire for her. Why? How? She was so intelligent seeming, so what was she thinking or feeling to even entertain such a thought so inimical to her physiological being or capability?

The voice was not the same. It is now diminished. There is no denying it. There is also, happily, now far less trace of the vocal glitches she was suffering a few years ago. I counted only three slight, small sound cracks in the evening, thank god. That sound of two cords coming together and not sounding a note—that horrifying scream of silence which must have been a nightmare hardly imaginable, for her, after two or three operations for vocal nodules. Whatever the blame or cause for this terrible condition, complications from which blighting at least two major Met productions, the disaster of the specially revived Hamlet, and the fiasco of the Traviata, we are now past all that and here she was setting her delicate foot to the stage in a new guise.

From her very first entrance and equally from both her gait and posture, I was immediately struck by what I felt was clearly her very serious intent and by its quite beautiful presentation as manifested by the magnificent metallic grey concert gown she wore and the attitude she wore becomingly along with it. As well, there was her beautiful blonde coiffure, very elegant and à la Parisienne, as I am sure both Mme manou and œdipe would have concurred.

Perhaps it’s just because I am a little partial to this beautiful color of grey, that it made its sparkling presence felt and set the tone for me. This was to be a serious affair and she was going about it straight on, facing the gaping wolf’s maw that makes up the artist’s audience with no gimmickry and as an artist seeking our approval. I had not expected this and to me it showed class and a demeanor I respect. Frankly, I did not know what to expect, so this was the first pleasant surprise.

Sleevelessly allowing her arms to freely sculpt in the air the many pictures she sought sometimes in vain to as well delineate with her voice, this rather large dress enveloped and bolstered this strong but rather delicate woman, becoming her ally and shielding her from our gaping jaws. It was visually so important because the voice itself was hardly able to capture and hold one’s attention through an entire recital of a couple dozen French mélodies (Duparc, Fauré, Poulenc, Debussy ) and three sets of lieder by Clara Schumann, Brahms, and Richard Strauss. In addition there were three encores, no more. The last item being perhaps the most poignant item of the evening, but that comes later.

The tone continued smoothly and with fluency but was rather thin, of the same color throughout, muted as if a damper had been put over the keys. Again, a great deal of air sculpting with the hands continued, most all of it appropriate but one sensed that she had been advised to keep a handle on it, not to overdo it, and veer into the abyss of cartoonishness.

The more I watched, the more intrigued I became with what she was doing for it seemed she was peace bargaining with us all as a collective, to try and just put the past behind her, to have us understand that she had done the best she could have under the circumstances, was acknowledging that perhaps she’d not always done everything perfect, but had done what was imperative to her at the time of expression, paid the price,and would we just all, collectively speaking once more, allow her to move on?

Well then, this is just my intuitive impression and nothing more: this is what she left me with. It was as if I assisted at some type of spiritual exorcism, not a recital of songs at all, and to be honest, it was not the music for once, which bewitched me, but the strange kind of incantatory rites to absolve her soul and to push on to what is next, that held my attention, along with her glorious grey armour-gown, her serious and deeply meaningful demeanor and intent.

Instead of singing the usual self-congratulatory bon-bons a diva generously dishes out at the end of her dinner table, she sang, for what I was able to recognise, and perhaps I am wrong, the little aria from that dream-opera role manquée of hers Lakmé, (yes there is a recording but there could have been a revival to rival la Pons)—”Pourquoi dans les grands bois”. A very simple and sad, small-sized aria. No trills, no thrills, and no roulades. Just a short, sad little song. In a minor key. Honestly, I don’t know when I have ever heard a recital ended on this blu note and it had a much greater effect on me than if she’d sung the entirety of, say, Esclarmonde.

For when she uttered the final word of the aria, “Pourquoi?”, she gave such a look to us all as if to say “How did all this come about?” It was divine tristesse. It became her means by which she effectively wafted forth from that old shell of a chrysalis and whatever errors it held within, and her absolution from all that past. Withal, still it was something akin to a beautiful, small and delicate butterfly who had once fluttered its wings happily about us in a summer garden, now imploring us silently from beneath the glass it lay imprisoned, still so beautiful forever, but muted and changed into an impression of its former self.

She then gracefully exited with her wonderful, fluent, discreet and gentlemanly accompanist and colleague M. Phillippe Cassard, a co-creator in this recital, and flew away into the cold Manhattan night, an artist to her very fingertips and to the very end.

Ave atque vale, Zerbinetta in excelsis!

Photo © S. Fowler

  • actfive

    I have a great fondness for Dessay and am thrilled to read Camille’s beautifully written review.

    • armerjacquino


    • olliedawg

      I’ve only seen Dessay via YouTube in an excerpt from “Ariadne” in Salzburg from…2001? I was startled to see this tiny woman, with a head of brassy blond hair, blunt-cut and messy, wearing cowboy boots and something pretty short and sheet, giving shit to the Composer (the ubiquitous SusieG) who towers over her, and then singing that sublime aria about no one really knowing her soul…plus, the look on SG’s face as Dessay is singing, nearly to herself…it was great theater and so very heartbreaking.

  • bluecabochon

    Lovely personal review, Camille. I’m glad that you were able to get to the hall and see her, hopefully, not for the last time. I am eager to see the direction her career takes in the years to come. Such an energetic artistic visionary won’t be content to retire from the artistic world quite yet. :)

  • -Ed.

    I often use this video to demonstrate to my young recruits just how fun opera can be.

    • alejandro

      I play that one a lot to my theater friends when they complain opera singers can’t act.

    • Batty Masetto

      Or how about this:

      • Milady DeWinter

        Your review was pure poetry, sad poetry, like Natalie now -- but it sounds like a personal triumph for her. I think the Poulenc cycle “Fiancailles pour rire” absolute heaven on earth. At her best, she was incomparable. At her worst, she was still incomparably riveting. And vocally, her own worst enemy with her desire to be an Elektra when she had the voice of an Olympia. But quel courage! I agree with the poster who mentioned her album of Mozart arias -- the earlier one of the concert arias is stupendous, equalled only by Gestzy and Gruberova’s. Mozart tamed her wild ways a bit and forced her to sing those extraordinary acuti in the right channel. I always felt that the French coloratura stuff sort of suffered in comparison -- as if she did not quite believe in, or even like, the music itself. Her notes up to and including top F were great -- the notes above were forced and cost her.

        • olliedawg

          Milady, I couldn’t agree more about how riveting she is. A latter-day Teresa Stratas…

  • Buster

    Fabulous piece, Camille! I am happy you got something out of this evening, even thoug you had to work hard! It might be me, but it also sounded like it was a little depressing. At least, I was reminded of aging soubrettes and their plight. Let’s hope she says Bonjour Tristesse soon, and gets as fierce as Juliette Gréco, who still sings like there is no tomorrow.

  • Late to the table and repeating what many have already said -- your extraordinary review is a bravura performance on its own, Camille!


    • Ruby

      Also late to the table, but I was too welled up in tears earlier to reply. You Camille (like Poison Ivy at the Grigolo recital) described everything I felt, except maybe, like Alejandro, I did not hear her voice as diminished as you did, but was captivated all the way to the end about how she sounded: it was so ethereal, so magical, and so was her persona. Thanks for describing the gorgeous dress she chose, and her elegant hair do and demeanor. She was just -- as you say -- a beautiful butterfly. (I was so afraid that someone would say nasty things that I almost didn’t want to read anyone’s review, and kind of with one eye closed, started to read yours Camille! You are extra ordinarily gifted: thanks for the time spent on writing your feelings down so people who were not there could understand and envision how it was and for us who were there, but not having the gift to describe an evening like this, thank you also.

  • Ruby

    I have to add that it was in 1991 that I was having lunch at a friend’s house in Graz, Austria, when Austrian radio streamed an interview with Natalie talking and singing, and we all remained at the table way enthralled…..

  • Chanterelle
  • SF Guy

    Bay Area Dessay fans please note; Her SF recital this Saturday has not sold particularly well, and $20 rush tix will be available at noon at the Symphony Box Office. More details:

  • Batty Masetto

    Will any other SF Parterrians be at Dessay’s recital tonight? We could meet at intermission.

  • mskapay

    Thank you, finally, for a review on here that doesn’t hinge on operatic necrophilia for Natalie’s past performances, doesn’t trash a past-her-prime diva for trying something new and perhaps not being in her strongest vocal estate, and doesn’t ram her performance against long-gone divas with similar voices to point out how inferior it was.

    By god, a classical review can be something other than a nasty shred job. I could kiss you. I am so dreadfully tired of other reviewers hauling up dead and retired performers to show ‘what opera should really be like’, or whingeing on about how they liked the performer better back in the day when in actual fact they didn’t like them then much either. It’s the critical writing equivalent of a cat eating the Christmas tinsel and then chasing it while it is still suck in its rear end, to me. I will sing your critical praises to the heavens for finally giving a review worthy of the art. Well, well, well, well done.

    • Yes, nothing like praising a positive review by comparing it favorably to all those “shred jobs” which you then proceed to shred.

      • … for he who lives by the shred shall die by the shred…

      • mskapay

        What can I say? I grow weary of criticism alternating between merciless shredding and being so vapid as to be useless. The opera crew on Twitter discuss this a fair bit, that it doesn’t really help classical music stay alive to have criticism only be at one extreme or the other. I almost never see reviews of this quality anymore. Opera criticism should be something more than what it is now.

    • armerjacquino

      Your cat is weird.

      • Grane


  • laddie