In the season of celebration a critic may lead the revels or cast a shadow like the uninvited wedding-guest. In the present instance I can't quite wholeheartedly appear as the first and am unwilling to perform as the latter. Dessay is a singer of real merit, distinguished among her present-day colleagues and, as Michel Parouty's notes remind us, in line with some notables of the past. I don't find a personal timbre that might bring a thrill of recognition such as often arises out of a chance encounter with a great singer. Nor, in the flesh or to some extent on records, have I found a purity, warmth or (complete) steadiness of tone to draw me into its orbit and place it (let's say) among these I have loved.
But, make out a form where separate items in the high sporano's attainments are listed and I'd probably have to tick every box. Range, flexibility, intonation, precision, scale-work, trills, staccati: all of these. There is an imaginative care, too, which looks for poetry in the once-hackneyed songs of Dinorah and Lakmé. Juliette's waltz-song is animated with a youthful zest which knows that excitement may lie in the shade as well as in the light. Lucie's madness (for this is the French version) derives its effectiveness from keenly observed hints in the score interpreted with a full exercise of every technical and emotional faculty.
In the three Mozart arias she is particularly admirable. The Queen of Night imposes a glittering, fearsomely precise authority; her daughter (moved along at a quickish tempo) grows into womanhood and turns in dejection towards a kindly death; and in the concert aria Alceste addresses the people of Thessaly with passion, hitting squarely the G in alt, the highest note Mozart wrote for the voice. Rachmaninov's Vocalise muses luxuriously, and Bernstein's Cunegonde brings the unexpected revelation of comic grandeur.
The DVD shows her also to be a producer's dream, acting out his liveliest fancies, and singing just as well whether running about, lying down or copulating with a fly. She seems infinitely adaptable. For instance, in one production of Les contes d'Hoffmann, the doll is all jerky mechanics, in another (the song taken adagio) she appears to be comforting the inmates of an asylum, and in a third she is a diminutive Shirley Temple figure backed by six outsize replicas. There are two Zerbinettas, with only their notes and bare midriffs in common. The mad scenes of Lucie and Ophélie are undoubted triumphs but take an inordinately long time. “Glitter and be gay”, from the Glyndebourne celebration of 1997, is even better seen than merely heard, and so, according to taste (for this contains the copulatory matter) is the mouche duet from Orphée aux enfers, with the finale thrown in for good measure.
Natalie Dessay - (The) Miracle of the Voice
Virgin Classics' two-disc SACD collection of arias, scenes, and songs from Natalie Dessay's complete opera recordings and recital CDs is notable for its variety and contains some rarities, such as excerpts from Meyerbeer's Le pardon de Ploërmel and Offenbach's Robinson Crusoë, as well as standard repertoire. The first disc is devoted to French opera and operetta (if you count Lucie de Lammermoor as French). The second disc includes music by Mozart (arias for both Pamina and the Queen of the Night), Handel, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Thelonius Monk, and Leonard Bernstein, among others. Dessay's light and silvery coloratura is remarkably secure throughout her range and is especially brilliant in the stratospheric reaches, an attribute that makes her "Bell Song" from Lakmé and Olympia's song from Les Contes d'Hoffmann truly spectacular. Her performance of Pamina's "Ach! Ich fühl's," is deeply emotional and is as persuasive as the Queen of the Night's "Der Hölle Rache." The limpidity of the Handel aria demonstrates her mastery of an emotional world far from the pyrotechnics of French grand opera. She is equally at ease in the newer repertoire, an understated obbligato part for a French adaptation of Monk's "'Round Midnight" and Bernstein's "Glitter and be gay," which showcases her gifts as a comedian, and to which her accent adds a charming dimension. Dessay makes a strong case even in roles that generally feature a voice with more weight, such as Manon. The many orchestras, choruses, and soloists that accompany her offer strong support. The sound throughout is clean and bright.