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