French soprano Natalie Dessay is one the stars of today’s operatic world, thrilling audiences as both a singer and an actress.
Now an admired interpreter of bel canto and lyric heroines such as Violetta (La traviata), Lucia di Lammermoor, Marie (La Fille du régiment), Amina (La sonnambula), Pamina (Die Zauberflöte), Manon, Juliette, Ophélie (Hamlet) and Cleopatra (Giulio Cesare), Dessay originally made her reputation with showpiece coloratura roles such as Offenbach’s Olympia, Mozart’s Queen of the Night and Strauss’ Zerbinetta.
Born in Lyon in 1965, Natalie Dessay grew up in Bordeaux. She first dreamed of becoming a dancer, but later studied acting and singing at the Bordeaux Conservatoire. She progressed with extraordinary rapidity, completing five years’ worth of study in just one year and graduating with First Prize at the age of twenty. In 1989, after a brief period in the chorus of the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, she entered France’s first Concours des Voix nouvelles and won second prize. This led Dessay to further studies at the Paris Opéra and also brought her to the attention of the agent Thérèse Cédelle – still her agent today – and to her first major engagements as a soloist.
In 1992 she sang her first Olympia in Offenbach’s Contes d’Hoffmann at Paris’s Opéra Bastille in a staging by Roman Polanski. The next year she was invited to the Vienna Staatsoper to sing Blondchen (Die Entführung aus dem Serail). In 1993 she was Olympia in the opening production for the rebuilt Opéra de Lyon and by 2001 she had performed the role in eight different stagings of Hoffmann, including her debut appearance at La Scala. The 1990s also brought the Queen of the Night at Aix-en-Provence, Ophélie (Hamlet) in Geneva (she also sang the role at London’s Royal Opera House and at Barceona’s Liceo in 2003, where the production was filmed for DVD), Aminta (Die schweigsame Frau) in Vienna, Fiakermilli (Arabella) for her debut at the New York Met, which was soon followed by Olympia and Zerbinetta, Lakmé at Paris’ Opéra Comique (she recorded the role for EMI Classics with Michel Plasson), Eurydice in Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers in Lyons (also recorded for EMI Classics), and, in Paris, Morgana in Handel’s Alcina and the title role in Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol (also to be seen on DVD). Conductors for these appearances included Pierre Boulez, James Levine, James Conlon, William Christie and Marc Minkowski.
In 2001 the soprano’s career entered a new phase when she realised a long-held ambition to perform Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a role she subsequently sang in 2004 in Chicago, in 2006 at the Bastille in a powerful staging by Andrei Serban, and in a new production for the opening of the New York Metropolitan’s 2007-8 season on 24th September 2007, which was broadcast on a giant screens at Lincoln Centre and Times Square. She also recorded the French version of the opera. More Donizetti, La Fille du régiment, provided a triumph for her in 2007 in Laurent Pelly’s witty staging in London, Vienna and New York. The British performances led to a Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera for Dessay, and to a DVD-release which has proved an international bestseller.
In 2008 Natalie Dessay returned to the Metropolitan for revivals of Lucia and of La Fille du régiment, which was broadcast live in high definition to hundreds of cinemas around the world. In the autumn of the same year she triumphed as Manon (a role she first sang in Geneva in 2004) at Chicago Lyric Opera opposite Jonas Kaufmann as Des Grieux; this was in David McVicar’s production of Massenet’s opera, also staged in Barcelona, where it was recorded for DVD with Rolando Villazón as Des Grieux.
January 2009 brought Natalie Dessay’s first Mélisande at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, directed by Laurent Pelly (a DVD of this Pelléas et Mélisande was released in November 2009). More firsts followed in 2009 with Violetta in the summer in Santa Fe and Musetta at the Opéra de Paris in the autumn. In 2010, Paris mounted a new production of La Sonnambula for Dessay, six years after her first appearances as Bellini’s heroine in Santa Fe; her interpretation of Amina was recorded during concert performances in Lyon in November 2006 and released in autumn 2007. In 2009 Dessay assumed the role of Amina again, this time in a new production at the Metropolitan Opera. Another new production of La sonnambula, seen in both Paris and Vienna, followed in 2010. 2011 brought her first Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, again at the Opéra de Paris, in a staging conducted by Laurent Pelly and conducted by Dessay’s frequent colleague Emmanuelle Haim. In summer 2011, the Aix-en-Provence Festival brought Dessay in a new production of La traviata.
Natalie Dessay signed her first exclusive contract with EMI Classics in 1994 and, in addition to the recordings already mentioned, her catalogue includes discs of Mozart (a collection of arias and his Mass in C minor), songs and arias by Strauss, works by Monteverdi Bach and Handel (including a disc of arias from Giulio Cesare), all conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, and collections of Italian arias, French arias and vocalises. Her 2-CD and DVD compilations Le Miracle d’une voix, released in 2006, have proved an enormous success, selling over 250,000 copies and showcasing her range of achievement as an artist.
Mary Zimmerman's new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor which opened the 2007-2008 Metropolitan Opera season has not been received with universal enthusiasm by the opera going public. There are aspects of it which are slightly troubling, and certain inconsistencies with the libretto. It is unclear why she chose to update the drama from its original late seventeenth century setting to the mid-nineteenth century, but the results of so doing include making the premise for the Ashton-Ravenswood feud rather less likely, and Edgardo's mission to France a very strange whim, given how far beyond the auld alliance Zimmerman's context is.
There are gains to be made as well however, since Enrico's straightened circumstances and faded grandeur can be more acutely conveyed when their effects are shown in a dishevelled nineteenth-century reception room as opposed to a seventeenth-century baronial hall, when the interior design options available were more primitive.
The look of the whole production, with the exception of the Wolf's Crag scene where the set is rather perfunctory, is fantastic. Act I, Scene 2 in particular, the fountain in the woods, has a set of breathtaking realism, with snow falling throughout the harp solo, and some excellent lighting design to show dawn breaking and the sun gradually rising throughout the love duet.
The actual direction of the singers is rather more variable. There is quite a lot of detail in the love duet for instance, which certainly prevented it from seeming like the operatic set piece it has the potential to come across as. Zimmerman has staged it so that at his first reference to having to leave, Edgardo gives Lucia a quick peck on the cheek and attempts a hasty exit. The rest of the duet is played out as Lucia attempting to delay his departure for as long as possible, extracting more kisses and promises of devotion, catching his hand every time Edgardo tries to go. Although this brilliantly suggests the dynamics of young love, it shifted the parameters of their relationship to the extent that Lucia seemed extremely needy and Edgardo rather less keen. Given that his ardour is such that he goes on to kill himself at the news of Lucia's demise, I didn't feel this accurately captured the spirit of the characters or their relationship with each other.
Other scenes, such as the opening outside Lammermoor Castle, scarcely seemed to have been directed at all. The gentlemen of the chorus were left with nothing to do but stand in an evenly distributed rabble, and Mariusz Kwiecien, apparently in the absence of having been given any better ideas, ended up delivering large parts of Enrico's aria front, centre stage, with his arms outstretched, a stand and deliver approach which ceased to be the norm in opera productions quite some years ago. The same thing happened to John Relyea in Raimondo's aria in Act III, Scene 2, and it is difficult to see what his alternative was, since he was getting next to no response from the chorus to the shocking events he was relating.
Zimmerman does appear to have paid significant attention to the chorus during the Sextet in Act II, Scene 2, where they have the function of acting as gossips, observing what should be a tense dramatic situation following the sudden entrance of Edgardo after Lucia has signed her marriage contract with Arturo. Unfortunately, tension is lacking from this scene owing to some very distracting staging. Although I do think having a photographer at the wedding is an idea which could have worked very well, the decision to use it during the sextet was misguided. Given what we have seen of the hot blooded Enrico and Edgardo in the preceding scenes in the drama, the likelihood of their having enough passivity to submit to a photo shoot at this point is low, and the absurdness of the situation robs the music of its emotional punch.
Other controversial ideas definitely did pay off. Zimmerman's great strength with Lucia appeared to be getting the coloratura to mean something. Initially, I was disappointed with Natalie Dessay (in the title role), who seemed disengaged with the dramatic situation. The trills and flourishes around the words 'E l'onda pria sì limpida, Di sangue rosseggiò!' are clearly in the score to convey fear, but with Dessay they didn't appear to communicate any discernible emotion. But in the cabaletta to the entrance aria, the coloratura was used to express girlish joy, to get at Alisa, and gradually turn her around to Lucia's way of thinking, so that she did eventually relent and allow Lucia to delight in her love. Michaela Martens, as Alisa, acted superbly to allow this to come across.
Inevitably, it was the mad scene where Zimmerman and Dessay created their best work. Having been dramatically underwhelming in Act I, Dessay grew in stature during Act II and proved herself to be a strong actress during the duet with Enrico and the wedding scene. But nothing had prepared me for the impact she made in the mad scene. It was quite simply the most impressive and skilful acting I have seen on the operatic stage. Vocally, she was imperfect, and at times rather raddled, but the way she delivered the coloratura and the top notes in the service of the drama was remarkable. The run on the repetition of 'da' tuoi nemici' was very expressive, accompanied by a physical spasm which made it a totally convincing manifestation of her extreme mental state. Countless examples of this abounded throughout the scene, but the top B flat she let out as a cry of pain when she received a shot in the arm from the doctor was particularly deeply affecting, and the rage and victimisation she conveyed through the embellished second verse of 'spargi d'amaro pianto' in response to this was almost painful to watch, so thrillingly immediate did the drama seem. Having chorus members carry her out, so that the crowning E flat came across as Lucia was literally being dragged off kicking and screaming (with no criticism of Dessay's delivery of this note being intended in the use of the word 'screaming'), was a brilliant idea. I'm not sure I have ever seen a piece of opera direction manage to justify an un-written display note with quite that much success.
Of course, the mad scene is a hard act to follow, particularly when given such a dramatically compelling performance as Dessay's. However, Giuseppe Filianoti as Edgardo had got the audience very much on side in his earlier scenes through some very emotionally direct phrasing and acting, so that he was well received. His singing earlier in the evening had been appealing, if not completely free of issues, but by the end of his final scene he was absolutely exhausted. He had enough commitment to carry his difficult closing aria off, but his top notes betrayed considerable strain. He was assisted by some very sympathetic and subtle conducing from Joseph Colaneri who ensured Filianoti did not have to linger any longer than necessary outside of his comfort zone. Indeed, Colaneri gave great support to the whole cast in what is inevitably a voice-led opera, allowing them the freedom they needed to create effects consistent with the bel canto style. He also kept a tight grip on the drama in the large set pieces, such as the Act II finale and moved it forward with expert skill. The orchestra was as typically suave as one has come to expect from the Met, but also incredibly delicate when called for, such as the beautifully atmospheric opening bars in the horns and woodwind.
Kwiecien and Relyea were both vocally excellent and did what they could to be dramatically involving within the constraints of their scenes, but a very strong impression was made by the young Stephen Costello as Arturo, which is no mean feat in such a small role. His heavy lyric tenor voice struck me as one to watch, and he was pleasing on stage in scenic terms.
This was a fascinating evening in the theatre, with a beautiful, if occasionally aimless production, and variable vocal performances. However, its crowning glory, Dessay's electrifying performance of a brilliant staging of the mad scene, will I suspect remain one of the most moving and involving experiences I have had in the theatre for many years to come. Two other celebrated sopranos with strong dramatic instincts, Diana Damrau and Anna Netrebko, are scheduled for a revival of this production in the 2008-09 season, and it will be riveting to see how they each make it their own, so incredibly distinctive and successful was Dessay's achievement.
By John Woods