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.