Almost exactly twenty years after her auspicious Metropolitan Opera debut as the Fiakermilli in Arabella and a year following what she has claims was her final appearance on the operatic stage, Natalie Dessay returned Sunday afternoon to Lincoln Center—to sing opera.

No, not at the Met nor a complete role, instead she appeared in a concert of extended excerpts from Handel’s Giulio Cesare at Alice Tully Hall with Le Concert d’Astrée. Even while making a somewhat equivocal impression, a surprisingly fresh-sounding Dessay left more than one listener wondering whether her recent operatic retirement was wise.

The French singer has always been an artist easier to admire than to love: her sweet-and-sour voice never caressed the ear as have those of other operatic superstars. Yet her fresh and agile high soprano coupled with a vivid and canny sense of the theater endeared her to many, particularly in early coloratura roles like Olympia, the Queen of the Night and Zerbinetta. For me, she remains the ideal modern interpreter of the last, as I never much cared much for either Edita Gruberová (on film) or Diana Damrau (live) to name only her two most prominent rivals in that endlessly fascinating role.

Yet her spectacular high notes receded all too soon and serious medical ailments threatened her fragile voice on more than on occasion. Coupled with her clear frustration that while nature endowed her to be a soubrette she really longed to be a tragedienne, her performances grew more erratic, even desperate culminating in a lamentable series of Violettas in La Traviata at the Met in 2012. In addition, she grew increasingly forthright in expressing occasionally controversial views on singing and acting, opinions which (perhaps unfairly) alienated a number of former fans.

Perhaps inevitably, Dessay began withdrawing from future engagements announcing that a run in October 2013 of Massenet’s Manon in Toulouse would be her final appearances in opera. Even before then, she had begun to regularly sing popular music with Michel Legrand and do song recitals, a format she had always previously disdained. So it may have been a surprise when it was announced that this November she would be returning to her “final” new operatic role, Handel’s Cleopatra, for a seven-concert international tour with countertenor Christophe Dumaux and the period-instrument ensemble Le Concert d’Astrée, conducted by its founder, her longtime collaborator Emmanuelle Haïm.

While Handel had never played a big part in Dessay’s career, her Morgana in Alcina was a notable success in Paris and Chicago and on CD. More recently she and Haïm have undertaken a number of baroque projects together, including a disk of Handel’s Italian cantatas entitled Delirio, and the early oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. They also collaborated on Aci, Galatea e Polifemo but one of her recurrent medical sabbaticals prevented her appearing on that recording (although a hard-to-find French CD exists of excerpts of a live performance with Dessay).

When she first sang Cleopatra in the Laurent Pelly production at the Paris Opéra in 2011, Haïm was in the pit conducting Le Concert d’Astrée. (Surprisingly the DVD has already gone out of a print in the US, perhaps a casualty of the recent takeover by Warner). However, a CD of most of Cleopatra’s arias was recorded prior to the premiere of the Pelly and featured Dessay at her recent best, singing with delicacy and controlled emotion. The CD is particularly valuable for containing the world premiere recordings of two intriguing alternative Cleopatra arias.

David McVicar’s Glyndebourne Cesare was imported by the Met last year, giving Dessay the opportunity to partly redeem herself for the previous season’s unfortunate Traviatas. Gamely executing those silly dance moves conceived for Danielle deNiese, she helped enliven that lumbering, sniggering production with intensity and grace if not the final word in vocal security or stamina.

However, Sunday afternoon’s concert found Dessay in her best shape for Cleopatra’s music since that Virgin recording: the voice sounded free and young and mostly without the strain that had marred so many of her recent appearances. She was likely helped by the intimacy of the venue and the lower tuning of the orchestra (most likely, A=415). Unfortunately the odd choice of the excerpts presented prevented us from experiencing the maturation of the young Egyptian queen.

After the overture, Dessay and Dumaux each sang four arias, along with the couple’s final duet, but oddly only Cesare’s brief opening piece “Presti omai” was included from Act I. Thus we lost the more flirtatious side of Cleopatra and the angry, conniving Cesare with the unpredictability of natural horns presumably having mandated the unfortunate exclusion of “Va tacito.”

Dessay thus began with a secure if unseductive “V’adoro pupille” marred by her familiar tendency to gesture manically. Despite some unfortunate mugging in the recitative before Cesare’s “Al lampo” she redeemed herself by closing the concert’s first half with a touchingly restrained “Se pietà” during which she movingly conveyed Cleopatra’s surprised realization that she’s genuinely distressed at the dangers facing Cesare.
After the familiar “Piangerò” Dessay sang the best “Da tempeste” I have heard from her—the coloratura suave and supple with stressed exposed high notes kept to a minimum. However after remaining pleasingly sedate for the previous two selections, the hyper-kinetic physicality returned—one yearned to strap that right arm to her side!

Despite her pleasing vocal performance all afternoon, Dessayseemed oddly distracted. More than once she reached out for Haïm who seemed to be comforting her while she clutched Dessay’s hand. She rarely smiled even when acknowledging the audience’s enthusiastic applause. When she did finally smile during “Da tempeste,” it was in character as Cleopatra. Her demeanor put an odd damper on what was otherwise an unexpectedly successful operatic return to the city of so many Dessay career highlights. It was also off-putting to see her appear to rely so heavily on her score, especially after having often recently sung this music, particularly in the past few weeks.

If the audience came primarily to hear Dessay, I suspect many were unexpectedly blown away by the vigorous and confident Dumaux. When the concert was originally announced, Dumaux was to sing music for both Cesare and Tolomeo, Cleopatra’s brother. But after having sung Tolomeo many, many times (including both the Pelly production in Paris and the McVicar at the Met) I suspect he lobbied to focus on Cesare. With his tangy, unconventional countertenor it’s easy to hear why Dumaux has more often been cast in the less heroic Handel roles, but Sunday’s concert served notice that he’s more than ready to step into the emperor’s sandals.

He tossed off the coloratura of “Presti omai” and “Al lampo” with insouciant flair while spinning out the long lines of “Aure deh per pietà” with touching simplicity. The afternoon’s high point was his splendid “Se in fiorito ameno,” one of Handel’s greatest arias in which the besotted Cesare joyously trades increasingly intricate lines with the first violinist, here the excellent David Plantier. Dumaux partnered Dessay debonairly in their concluding duet, their voices blending sweetly both there and in the unexpected encore from Handel’s later Eternal Source of Light Divine.

After their debut in 2004 with Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, Haïm and Le Concert d’Astrée have visited Lincoln Center regularly, most usually with Handel programs. They pursue a dynamic, yet extravagantly lush approach to Handel, one very much different from those of some of the other prominent period-instrument ensembles. This bent was most apparent in a lovely Water Music suite during the concert’s first half which revealed many sensuously piquant details particularly in the playing of celebrated traverse flute and recorder virtuoso Sébastien Marq.

Audiences will have the opportunity this winter to see Dumaux as Handel’s Tamerlano which is sure to be one of the high points of a mini-festival of very strongly-cast revivals of Pierre Audi’s productions of Tamerlano and Alcina in Brussels and Amsterdam conducted by Christophe Rousset. Although he has performed Cesare once before (with the recently much-in-demand Sonya Yoncheva as Cleopatra), he should definitely be more regularly heard in that role.

Although Dessay at 49 has announced no plans to return to opera, I, for one, wish she would. If she wanted to explore more Handel, surely Partenope or Romilda in Serse or Dorinda in Orlando would suit her admirably. Juilliard’s recent Il Turco in Italia suggested that a live-wire singer like Dessay as Fiorilla is just what that uneven opera needs. Why not Mozart’s Despina or Sandrina (that heroine of La Finta Giardiniera even gets a mad scene)? Or Périchole? Or Thérèse in Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias?

If not, at least New York got this final glimpse of the old Dessay operatic magic.

Photo: Simon Fowler/Erato