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Posts Tagged ‘Natalie Dessay’

David McVicar’s production for the Glyndebourne Festival can be seen on DVD in what may be the best seller in Handel’s Giulio Cesare’s videography. It is an imaginative, funny production that made Danielle de Niese (“the dancing Cleopatra”) a household name. The fact that it has been revived at the Met without this soprano, who has appeared in the old John Copley production (premièred in 1988 with Kathleen Battle, Tatiana Troyanos and Trevor Pinnock), seems to be explained by the fact that Cleopatra is the kind of leading role in a scenically interesting production safe enough for Natalie Dessay after her problematic Traviatas at the Met.

I have to confess that I was not eager to see the French diva in this opera at this point of her career. In the video from Paris, her performance did not strike me as really convincing.  First, the role sits a bit low in the soprano range (Troyanos herself recorded it for Karl Richter and also Magdalena Kozena for Minkowski), an area of Dessay’s voice in which she hardly sounds seductive or regal. Second, the kind of clear vocal production one expects from a singer in the baroque repertoire did not really come to her anymore as spontaneously as it used to do before. Actually “third” is more related to the way Laurent Pelly chose to portray Cleopatra than to the way Dessay embodied the concept. However, the fact is that her Cleopatra is the shining feature of the Met’s revival (technically a new production this side of the Atlantic).

Although she is less skilled a dancer than De Niese, this seems less important in the way Dessay re-invented the role. Here Cleopatra is more Claudette Colbert than Beyoncé, shrewd rather than alluring, overwhelming rather than persuasive – and you would take her side far more easily rather because of this. She was in also in exceptionally good voice this evening. Her high register particularly fresh and more ductile than it has been in a while. She has always had a fancy for over-decoration in repeats and some numbers – Tu la mia stella sei – for instance, sounded a bit deformed rather than embellished. She deserves high praises for capturing the character development and creating a new vocal and expressive “personality” for the moment Cleopatra stops being “Lydia”. As a matter of fact, her Se pietà, which I had already heard in the concert for the 10th Anniversary of Le Concert d’Astrée, was an example of how to build up intensity. That was truly the highlight of the evening. One could say that my positive impression might have something to do with low expectation, but I would disagree. All in all, she was simply the most interesting Cleopatra I have seen live in a theatre.

Alice Coote’s is an interesting choice for the role of Sesto – her mezzo has a warm yet light sound but is based upon a a very strong and positive low register. I am not sure if hers is an ideal voice for trouser roles in Handel operas, but I would gladly hear her in roles like Leocasta (Giustino) or Elmira (Floridante), for the appealing, vulnerable quality of her singing. Her Cara speme was exquisitely sung – and she teamed with Patricia Bardon (Cornelia) for an ideal Son nata a lagrimar. Unfortunately, the Irish contralto could not stand the comparison with herself on the DVD. This evening, her middle register lacked color, the vibrato could be problematic and some excursion upwards quite gusty.

Among these evening’s countertenors, Cristophe Dumaux (Tolomeo) took pride of place for evenness, precise divisions and panache. One could say that David Daniels (Cesare) had a bad start, but the fact is that the two opening numbers are very tough singing. The American countertenor has now a very recessed low register and gets tired in long florid phrases. When the affetto is gentler, his legato and warm tone are most effective, especially in Aure, deh, per pietà. Guido Loconsolo tackles fioriture quite commendably and has a pleasant voice, not exactly dark, but that seems to be the rule in this part.

When John Nelson conducted Giulio Cesare in the Met, he did not try to make any adaptation in the sound of the house orchestra. He just let it create the required effect within these musicians’ possibilities albeit with a clear view of what Handel wanted. In the broadcast with Jennifer Larmore, there is no absence of drama, forward movement and excitement. This evening, although Harry Bicket took pains to keep things within the limits of Handelian style, this was achieved with a severe loss in expression. The orchestra sounded monochrome, uninvolved and entirely devoid of any sense of drama. Battle scenes, oaths of revenge, utterances of despair had only pretty, pellucid and not entirely clear sound in the background. I have seen Maestro Bicket conduct Handel in Munich – and the results were very different from what I’ve heard this evening.

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I had so many things to say about Mary Zimmerman’s production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula before ever seeing it that I have finally decided that I ought to see it – at the movie theatre. 

My first problem with the Met’s new Sonnambula was its selling feature. In the words of Peter Gelb himself, Bellini’s comédie larmoyante would have a helplessly flimsy libretto and ergo it needs help from the likes of Mary Zimmerman and Natalie Dessay. The idea that such a well-loved masterpiece should be fixed by a clueless stage director and a soi-disante intellectualized diva is simply disgusting and put me immediately in a negative disposition.

To start with, there is nothing wrong or stupid or undramatic about La Sonnambula’s plot – it is an insightful study on the theme of innocence, more precisely its “ideal type”, the ingénue. In a backwards Swiss village, the beautiful Amina, an orphan raised by an adoptive mother, is engaged to the local prospective good catch, Elvino. Everybody is radiant about the upcoming wedding but Lisa, the village’s resident bitch and Elvino’s former girlfriend. While Lisa has a sexy thing about her, Amina is the sort of angelic beauty with modest manners. Apart from Lisa, everybody is exultant about what promises to be a marriage made in Heaven. However, there is always a little hell hidden in every heaven – and the arrival of Count Rodolfo adds a little spice to the proceedings.

As soon as the gentleman sees Amina, he is immeditaly smitten by the girl’s artless charm. Surprisingly, the girl unconsciously responds the Count’s gallantry, what triggers a jealous fit for Elvino, who proves to be increasingly charmless, whiny and ultimately unseductive. But the girl is an angel, the boy is a decent fellow and they make peace.

Because of a ghost that haunts the place, the villagers return to their homes early in the evening – and the Count takes a room in Lisa’s hostel (ah, Lisa has a job too). Lisa tries to seduce the Count, but they hear some noise nearby and she goes away before someone sees her alone with a man in his room. The noise proves to be Amina in her nightgown. She is a sleepwalker and by sheer accident, of all rooms in the village, she shows up at the Count’s room. Although the girl is innocent, the events that took place that afternoon spurred thoughts in her mind about her wedding night and she is presently fantasising about that.  She embraces the Count while calling Elvino – and the way she calls him reveal hidden sparks. The whole event is too much for the Count’s steadfastness and he decides to leave the room before things get out of control. But Lisa sees everything and , in the next morning, invents a pretext to have the whole village witness that Amina had slept in the Count’s room. The engagement is broken to the bewildered girl’s dismay.

Obviously, on a conscious level, Amina is innocent – but the sleepwalking theme is used to put things on an unconscious level. The encounter with the Count revealed the kind of arousal she obviously never had with Elvino and her repressed instincts led her to the events that caused her rejection by her fiancé.

After an attempted rebound wedding with Lisa, Elvino witnesses one of Amina’s episodes of somnambulism during which the girl almost dies while lamenting the loss of Elvino’s love. Regretful, he  wakes her up and, in jubilant coloratura, she says she is in a “heaven of love”. Curiously, the librettist leaves to our imagination what she is going to do with the fact that Elvino won’t make her toes curl.

If we remember all that was written before the days of psychology, I would say that the plot is even quite clever. But Zimmerman and Dessay’s Marie-Claire-reading-worldweariness doesn’t do coyness – and they decided that the audience wants more. But the problem remains that Dessay is still a soprano leggiero and Zimmerman won’t ever be invited to direct Die Frau ohne Schatten. But that’s no problem if you transform the Swiss village into a rehearsal room, if Amina becomes an opera diva, Elvino her co-star and boyfriend, Lisa a stage director, the Count is probably an impresario, Lisa´s inn… Lisa’s inn is still the rehearsal room… and the rich impresario has to sleep in a hospital bed in the rehearsal room… and Amina also has to sleep there… actually she sleepwalks through the Met’s audience… and then she gets to the rehearsal room… and the choristers are so horrified to discover that the diva probably had, omygod, sex with the impresario that they tear all their sheet music away… As you see, this actually makes more sense than La Sonnambula’s libretto as written…

In any case, if I hadn’t read anything before I got to the movie theatre, I would say that there is still something to cherish. The sets are beautiful, the chorus members are extremely well directed with clearly defined personalities and, if Zimmerman really tried to solve the (many) loose ends in her concept, the whole idea of a show in the show could have worked. Maybe if Amina were not an opera diva, but the star of a high-school musical, maybe if Rodolfo were a handsome school teacher and if their scene happened in the house of Lisa, a rival teenager – maybe it could have worked in a Splendor-in-the-grass way. But if you take the naïveté out of the equation, the whole thing looks really silly.

Curiously, in spite of the present unfocused and colourless quality of Natalie Dessay’s high register, her Amina seemed to me far more convincing than her Lucia. She made more of the words and could conjure a girly and sweet tone when necessary. An ideal Amina would need more artlessness, more directness – this is a role that must go straight to the heart and eschew any braininess. Dessay falls more than once in the trap of coquettishness – and that is a no go. As for Juan Diego Flórez, although the tone is not attractive and does not ideally float in the tender moments of his duets with Amina, his phrasing is clean and accurate, his acuti are firm and exciting and he is truly engaged. I would say that both pale before Michele Pertusi’s elegant Rodolfo. This was one of the best performances I have seen from this singer. It is a pity, though, that Jennifer Black’s soprano is foreign to bel canto. Evelino Pidò’s expert conducting should be mentioned. At least as caught by the microphone, he could produce rich sounds without drowning his singers and always found tempi that made it comfortable for them to deal with their difficult florid lines.

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I’ll be quite honest and confess I went to the Met tonight with a negative disposition. I am a bit fed up with Natalie Dessay’s recent interviews in which she tells stories about herself and her artistry different from those she used to give ten years ago (yes, I have a good memory…) and I am still diggesting her Lucia “with an attitude”. I can even tell you right away that the first 30 minutes seemed to prove me right about my intuition – the overture was pretty disjointed, Dessay’s soprano wanted focus, brightness and projection during Au bruit de la guerre… By then, the whole performance promised to be long and pretentious. And then Juan Diego Flórez appeared on stage. I knew his comedy actor skills from the Met’s Barbiere di Siviglia, but his Tonio is a step further. His acting fulfilled to perfection the image of naiveté and gaucherie designed by the director. And that man really can sing. His tenor was at it most ductile and caressing and he seemed to laugh of the impossible difficulties in Ah, mes amis. Judging from what I heard,  even if that aria had 27 high c’s, this would not cause him any trouble! 

As for Dessay, it is beyond doubt that her voice has lost its former sheen and impetuosity and that she has some grey-toned patches and moments of virtual inaudibility. That said, I can tell you that those who were in the Met tonight left the theatre convinced that they have witnessed the work of a great artist: her talent for physical comedy is phenomenal, her delivery of the spoken lines is indeed worthy of an experienced actress, her musicianship is admirable and her charisma is irresistible. Most amazing of all, during the performance itself, it was very difficult to analyse those elements in their own values since they were closely imbricated on each other. Although her flexibility in coloratura is still something to marvel, she really won me over in lyric moments such as Il faut partir, when her voice regained the hallmark gleam, her legato could flow undisturbed and ethereal high pianissimi could be floated, all in the service of expression.

In the role of Sulpice, Alessandro Corbelli not only was in strong voice and showed command of French language, but also built a most likeable stage presence, funny without any hint of exaggeration. I cannot say this virtue was shared by Felicity Palmer, but I guess the role of the Marquise de Berkenfield requires the all-out approach. Her bright vibrant mezzo soprano was the aural image of the decadent and moody aristocrat.

Once past the mess in the overture, Marco Armiliato seemed to be concentrated on finding the optimal level of volume in order not to drown his lightweight cast (those are definitely not the Sutherland/Pavarotti-style voices), something with which he had relative sucess. Tempi tended to be animated and the lyrical moments revealed some inspired playing by individual players in the orchestra.

Laurent Pelly’s production looks somewhat like an illustration for Tintin comics – the idea of representing the Tyrolese relief with mountains of map is beautiful and intelligent, to start with. The stage direction is coreographied with Swiss clockwork precision and not only do the soloists act splendidly, but also the chorus. His Einverständnis with Dessay is particularly positive – she relishes the busy gesturing required from her and often uses it to give dramatic meaning to her fioriture. Someone seated next to me mentioned he felt as if he were watching a play and not an opera – and this should be understood not in the sense that theatrical values had price of place, but as a result of a wholly integrated approach to musical and dramatical expression. Bravo to Mr. Pelly and his truly talented cast.

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Mary Zimmerman’s new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor has been chosen as the symbol of the Met’s 2007/2008 season. Natalie Dessay’s face is posted at every bus stop and subway station in Manhattan over the slogan “You’d be mad to miss it”. However, I would say that the whole production team may have exaggerated their focus on madness. Sure Lucia’s theme is the loosening of the title’s role mental health, but as shown in the Met there was madness written all over the place from note one – and that leaves very little space for development. As a result, the audience is perfectly used to Lucia’s drollness in the first act – the rest seems her just another extravagance.

In the Met’s old production, Lucia was first shown as the dictionary definition of the Romantic heroine – lovely, radiant, innocent. Her long scene with Enrico pictured her vulnerability, rather a prey of a dilemma because her brother was not portrayed as a gruesome psycopath but rather a passive-aggressive selfish but not entirely insensitive fellow. The wedding scene revealed a gigantic barely unbearable effort to “do the right thing” until we finally saw the shattering of the Romantic image into semi-grotesque in the mad scene. Although Elizabeth Futral was permanently struggling with her notes, her acting was able to convey all that. Although the production was far from brilliant, it allowed her to do all that. I do not know if Zimmerman’s direction allowed Natalie Dessay to do something of the kind. I have to confess I found her stage performance rather mannered, if skilled and neatly done. I would say more: I could only “get” Dessay’s Lucia from the musical point of view.

Although the French soprano’s high register has seen more focused days, her voice is still lovely and her descent to the lower reaches is now perfectly mastered. Her coloratura remains truly impressive and she can toss in alts whenever they are required. However, what makes her so admirable is her enormous musical imagination and endless tonal variety. Because of that, the wandering of Lucia’s mind were touchingly portrayed in the mad scene – a remarkable feat, especially in a big theatre. All that said, a singing-actress like her should know that bel canto requires tonal variety dictated by the weight of every word in Italian text, a lesson taught by Renata Scotto and observed by Patrizia Ciofi in her video of the French version of this opera. Dessay’s diction is too generalized for that.

As Edgardo, Marcello Giordani did not seem to be in his best days. His tenor was a bit bottled-up and his phrasing rather unflowing and prone to lachrimosity. In the closing scene, he produced all-right impressive high notes, but legato was still largely absent. He definitely could not dispel the memory of Giuseppe Filianoti’s expressive Edgardo, sung in dulcet voice.

Marius Kwiecien’s forceful bairtone was in healthy shape as Enrico, but his singing was rather one-dimensional. John Relyea offered a far more sensitive performance, but his bass can be somewhat colourless. Stephen Costello, on the other hand, displayed a dark-hued but light tenor that sounds really promising. Provided he is not tempted to sing big lyric roles too early, he will be someone we are going to hear about often.

James Levine proved that Donizetti’s music has plenty to offer in the hands of a great conductor. He provided rich sounds without drowning his singers, opted for sensitive tempi and offered amazing increase in tension in the sextett, one of the best I have ever heard. His partnership with Dessay in the mad scene (done with glass harmonica) was particularly positive.

As to the staging, again I cannot see why the fuss – the solutions for the opening and the Wolf Crag scene are downright cheap, the little comical touches throughout simply distracting and the sceneries could look provincial (especially in the mad scene). Although the old sets did not show an ounce of imagination, their claustrophobic interiors and evocative outdoors produce the right effect more immediately than the new ones – at least for me.

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The much awaited début of Guy Joostens’ production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette has been talked about in the media as the Natalie Dessay’s Met début in a serious role (if I am not mistaken, her roles in the house have been so far Fiakermilli, Zerbinetta and Olympia). Maybe because of that, her last minute cancellation has thrown an awkward atmosphere in the whole production. It is not that Maureen O’Flynn has spoilt the show. She proved to have nerves of steel on stepping in in circumstances like that. Dexterous as she is, she still has a slightly acidulous voice and her sense of pitch leaves something to be desired. However, her tone is penetrating enough for comfort and she looks gracious enough for the role. The problem is that the whole show has been concocted for Dessay’s acting abilities – and her absence left the remaining singers/actors uncomfortable – and that may account’s for the overall reticence in the rest of the cast. Finally granted its Juliette, the whole performance seemed transformed – most of all conductor Bertrand de Billy. While his account of the score on Monday seemed a bit contrived and miscalculated, he showed a mastery of his orchestra and a sense of vitality on Thursday to an extent that someone might take him for another maestro.

And there was Dessay. Although the voice has these days a tendency to spreading on top notes, this is not really bothersome in the theatre. On the contrary, it is a most charming, entirely musical instrument that gives life to every bit of melody in the part of Juliette. Her native French, her tone colouring col testo, her legendary flexibility and accuracy with roulades, runs and trills – there is no doubt that she deserves her reputation and her moving into lyric roles is most welcome. Most noticeable of all was the wealth of stage movements and character building that filled scenes which looked uneventful on Monday. Her Juliette is spirited and whole-hearted in fun and in woe. Accordingly, Ramón Vargas responded more ardently to this Juliette, although his legato seemed to be more thoroughly knit on Monday. His voice is also entirely suited to this role – his dulcet tenor has enough volume for the most exposed moments, although this must not be confounded with the heroic quality one might expect from him considering his recent choice of roles. He sang with grace, sensitivity and sense of style and proved to be comfortable with his acting in a way few tenors in this repertoire do. The other tenor, Dimitri Pittas, in the role of Tybalt, is firm-toned and rightfully incisive to depict the character’s sense of pride and self-importance. Stéphane Degout’s Mercutio is similarly forceful, but also idiomatic and – thank God – unexaggerated. Kristinn Sigmundsson has the right gravitas for the role of Frère Laurent and Joyce DiDonato is a vivacious Stéphano.

As for the production, it is lots of ideas – most of them innocuous but inoffensive. Having the action set on a display of a clock with astrological/astronomic associations seems to imply the idea of ill-starred lovers taken to an untimely death, but that’s too intellectual to guarantee an extra amount of feeling. It certainly looks beautiful, though. I am not a Gounod-ian, so I have seen this opera only once before, in Munich (with Angela Maria Blasi and Marcelo Álvarez), in a wonderful modern production that actually added insight to the story, but my “default” is the MacKerras video in which everything simply looks like Romeo and Juliet. Maybe I’ve missed that.

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