Cher Public

Apparition

There was a moment during Natalie Dessay’s performance of Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” when the singer summoned the ghost of her former self. It was on the word Kuß!: her voice opened majestically, blooming with a youthful vibrancy. It brought back memories of her great successes on the operatic stage—Ophelia, Lucia, Zerbinetta—the performances that made her an international star. 

Now, at the age of 52, Dessay has left the practice of opera behind. In 2013, in an interview in Le Figaro, the soprano described the reason for ending her operatic career as the incongruence between her age and the roles in which her fach excels: she claimed she was too old to play Violetta and Manon, and so she decided to move on to dramatic roles on the stage. That being said, her critics were keen to comment on the state of her voice as well, an instrument whose troubled history has been widely reported.

In a YouTube video released about three years ago by Carnegie Hall, Dessay discussed her lack of work as a recitalist and asserted that the recital is “the most difficult art.”

This confession seems odd in light of her recent performance at Carnegie Hall with Philippe Cassard, where the singer brought a sophisticated sensibility and a broad vision to her work as a recitalist. She appears to expand on the stage, completely at ease in her body, commanding attention without the aid of costumes, sets, and choristers. And during her recital, Dessay managed to bring a fresh vivacity to her performance without being overblown or vulgar, adding something more spontaneous than the presentational approach taken up by so many other singers.

The program began oddly enough with Mozart’s “Deh, vieni, non tardar” from Le nozze di Figaro. The aria felt a bit alien within the context of her career—not to mention her supposed reasons for leaving opera, as reported in Le Figaro—and there seemed to be a thread of irony drawn out from the text. The effect was wryly bittersweet.

The soprano then tackled five Schubert Songs, one of which was the “Gretchen…” I mentioned earlier. Her performance of the lieder was elegant, tasteful, and generally inoffensive. However, it was during the final “Gretchen” when one was reminded of the full scope of her instrument. She deployed a flexible, glistening soprano to Schubert’s melody, and her conviction brought to life Goethe’s lovesick text.

She then returned to the realm of the Mozart ingénue with “Ach, ich fühl’s” from Die Zauberflöte, which seemed to comment on the earlier Figaro aria—this time from the point of view of lost love. No longer teasing the bloom of erotic anticipation, the text explores instead the reverse: a painful stab of longing, experienced at the supposed end of romantic attachment. In this manner, the two Mozart arias seemed to bookend the set by Schubert.

The first half of the recital concluded with a set of songs by Hans Pfitzner, Alte Weisen, with text by Gottfried Keller. Similar to her performance of the Schubert songs, Dessay’s approach to these pieces was elegant, if a bit vocally restrained. However, the set gave her a chance to make bolder theatrical choices, a welcomed departure from her more reserved approach to the Schubert songs and Mozart arias. Cassard’s playing was especially adept during this set, working contrapuntally with Dessay’s pliant soprano.

After the intermission, Dessay brought a more aggressive sound to Chausson’s “Chanson perpétuelle,” reveling in the drama of loneliness and despair. Dessay’s persona tended to eschew pathos in exchange for a steely conviction.

She showed more vocal movement and charm with Bizet’s “Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe” from Vingt melodies. While the text is guilty of a cloying, offensive orientalism, the music offers the voice plenty of opportunity to haunt the listener, a task in which Dessay generally excelled.

The singer then left the stage as Philippe Cassard played two Debussy piano pieces: “La fille aux cheveux de lin”, from Preludes, Book I, and “Ondine,” from Preludes, Book II, which served as a tranquil interlude. Dessay returned again, dramatically during Cassard’s playing, to complete the set with “Regret” and “Coquetterie posthume.”

She concluded the recital proper with a performance of “Air des Bijoux” from Charles Gounod’s Faust. Again, the return to the ingénue mode felt more ironic than anything else, though her singing of the famous Jewel song was musically vigorous and vocally secure.

At the end of her recital, Dessay offered four encores, among which her reading of “Mes longs cheveux” from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande seemed to fit her cool, older persona most effectively. However, it must also be said that her final encore, “Tu m’as donné le plus doux rêve” from Lakmé, was particularly evocative, redolent once again with ghosts of the soprano’s past.

  • What a wonderfully comprehensive and detailed review. Would that some of our Major “professional” reviewers were capable of being so evocative of the essence of the performance being given.

  • actfive

    Great review. How I miss Dessay’s thrilling, detailed performances. An unforgettable Lucia and Manon.

    • I’m glad to see people here liking Dessay. On French opera-themed web-sites she came in for a great deal of criticism, but I was always grateful for her pluck and enthusiasm and generosity. I just looked up when I last saw her and find, to my dismay, it’s already been 5 years… Eek. That was with Florez in the well-known Pelly prod. of La Fille du Régiment.

  • PATRICK MACK

    This is a wonderful review and you captured a beautiful souvenir of her performance for us. I always appreciated Dessay’s really honest bravery in her roles. I watched her Met Lucia recently and she did the whole cadenza a capella. No flute. No glass harmonica. Nothing. That’s some cajones. She was an exciting singer.I always wonder if she wouldn’t have had so much trouble with the voice is she hadn’t been a smoker though.

    • Big Finn

      One of the reasons why perhaps Karita Mattila gained back (some of) her footing is that some years ago she quit smoking. She used to be more or less a chain smoker, something I always wondered about when she otherwise seemed so ambitious about her career and role preparations.

      • John L

        Interesting, I thought I read somewhere here that when she was struggling a bit, it was menopause related.

    • Ivy Lin

      Per a vocal teacher who has worked with Natalie for a long time: Natalie doesn’t smoke. She had a photo shoot once where she posed with a cigarette. There are a number of singers who smoke but Natalie isn’t one of them.

  • Juicy Bjoerling

    a friend of mine is desperately seeking a recording of this recital. please contact me privately at juicy.bjoerling@yahoo.com. thanks.

  • ducadiposa

    I was so happy to read this review and about to remark that I can’t wait to hear this program in Toronto tomorrow night and then…I just got an email saying the recital is cancelled due to illness. I’ve been waiting for this all year…very disappointing. Any signs of illness in NYC?

  • John L

    I saw her last Saturday. She sounded pretty good. The voice has changed a bit since I last saw her live. The brightness I associated with her voice is not quite as bright. And when she was singing forte the sound was spreading a bit. But she strategically placed pianissimos in place of the fortes and she had beautiful pianissimos. She started with a bit of a cough or phlegm issue, but that cleared up by the second or third song. I liked the Mozart, Schubert, and the French songs. I thought the Bizet Arab Hostess was particularly haunting. She also had some very enthusiastic supporters in the hall. Perhaps they were New England Conservatory students. There is no doubt she has inspired a generation of music students by her many works easily available on YouTube.