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When Words Become Theater

New York
Issac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/24/2017 -  & March 19 (Mormant), April 12 (Tokyo), 16 (Fukuoka), 19 (Tokyo), 29 (Boston), May 2 (Toronto), June 17 (Saint-Maurice), 20 (Biot), July 7 (Auvers-sur-Oise), 2017
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492: “Giunse alfin il momento... Deh vieni, non tardar”
Franz Schubert: Geheimes, D. 719 – Die junge Nonne, D. 828 – Lied der Mignon, D. 877, No. 4 – Suleika I, D. 720 – Gretchen am Spinnrade, D. 118
Hans Pfitzner: Alte Weisen, Opus 33
Ernest Chausson: Chanson perpétuelle
Georges Bizet: Vingt Mélodies: 4. “Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe”
Claude Debussy: Preludes, Book I: 8. “La Fille aux cheveux de lin” – Preludes, Book II: 8. “Ondine” – Regret – Coquetterie posthume
Charles Gounod: Faust: “Air des bijoux”

Natalie Dessay (Soprano), Philippe Cassard (Piano)

P. Cassard, N. Dessay (© Courtesy of the Artists)

“Le Pen Is (hardly) Mightier Than The Song”
Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695) (Revised)

I first gazed upon the wondrous Natalie Dessay many years ago at the Met, as the androgynous (and) eponymous Fille du régiment and fell in love. Last night, she had doffed the transgender role, but wearing initially an elegant black and then simple but dazzling chartreuse gown, again engendered, if not love, at least an adoration for her voice.

As a coloratura soprano, Ms. Dessay could have offered a program of trills, swoops and the smoothest cantilenas, had she wished. Those are the easy ways to generate metaphorical swoons and mid-aria applause. But after three decades, Ms. Dessay, like Ms. Fleming, is too much the artist for that. We had a single trill (in a non-operatic work by Bizet), a minimal trio of operatic selections, at the two ends of the recital, and a plethora of mainly unknown lieder by familiar and unfamiliar names.

Ms. Dessay challenged most in the audience with Pfitzner, Chausson and the non-Carmen Bizet. And in the darkness of Carnegie Hall, perhaps the German and French lyrics weren’t totally comprehended. Yet this could never ever stop the joy of hearing her. And this for one reason: Ms. Dessay is that so rare operatic diva. A real actress.

A veritable Moreau among the vocal morceaux.

Before the first note from Susannah’s plaint and sexy invitation, she had turned her back to pianist Philippe Cassard, moved with half desolation, half imprecation and dramatized an aria which, only vocally, would challenge any singer. In the eight Pfitzner arias about women, Ms. Dessay’s German wasn’t quite audible here, but one knew immediately her characters. The first woman hurt, the second mysterious, abrupt and playful, and onto a woman who–unlike the first coquette–is older, more thoughtful, a part of heaven.

Nor, in this first section, did she stint on Schubert’s songs. One believes, from seeing a singer like Fischer-Dieskau in performance, that the singer establishes the mood and then projects. Ms. Dessay moved, she sung. And in The Young Nun, she was agonizing in movements and voice.

(For those who wonder what Schubert would have been like had he lived longer, Die junge Nonne gave the answer. Harmonically adventurous, a late Romantic, almost Mahleresque venture into the deepest parts of the soul.)

Yet Natalie Dessay is above all a singer. For those not familiar with her voice, the opening Mozart must have come as a revelation, for this was not a soprano, this was a voice floating in the aether of the hall. One might have thought that this almost unearthly tone might have been tiring had it continued. But again, she showed the uncommon drama in the Schubert lieder.

And in the Pfitzner...Well, the eight “old tunes” of Hans Pfitzner, new to this listener, were a revelation, Who knew that this dour-looking self-proclaimed reactionary with more contradictions than Furtwängler on the “Jewish question” , could write such luscious songs? And have them sung by a French soprano of such personal emotional strength?

Yes, this octet could have been composed by Reger or Wolf, but Pfitzner’s many moods were matched with Ms. Dessay. Yes, the dreamy numbers were caviar for her voice, but when she and Mr. Cassard pursued the satiric military seventh song, the changes–from admiration of her military lover to a more charming realism of his faults–was a masterly rendition.

This first half from Germany and Austria. Ms. Dessay was obviously far brighter in her native language, though two of the songs were very surprising. One doesn’t expect great emotional depths from Ernest Chausson, yet this Chanson perpétuelle, was a work of both warmth and pathos.

Even more unusual was Bizet’s Farewell to the Arabian Hostess (an abominable title: “G’bye, Mrs. Mohammed, and thanks for the chocolate cookies”).

What had brought Bizet to that halcyon of composers was how he transcended “French” music and delved into the exotic orientalism of Spanish and here ecstatic ersatz Middle Eastern fare. This above all was the highlight of a radiant recital. The words are from Victor Hugo, the harmonies were from faux-arab, the vocal line was totally operatic. Ms. Dessay sung it with sultry overtones, with a reticent sensuosity, and at times one heard the rhythms of dancing girls in the seraglio.

How fitting that Mr. Cassard, with his so sensitive playing, performed two works by Debussy–and how the theatrical Ms. Dessay should appear like a vision from another door, ready, without a break to continue with a Debussy song which blended in with earlier piano music.

Of course such a recital could not end with anything exotic or underplayed. So Gounod’s “Jewel Song” from Faust was the answer. Had this been Webster Hall in the East Village, the whole audience would have risen as one and waltzed through the aisles. But this was Carnegie Hall, so their applause called for no less than four encores.

One was a Strauss song, another an enchanting, appropriately exotic “air” from Debussy’s Pelléas, and two were by Delibes: “Spanish song” and the most familiar work, “Tu m’as donné le plus doux rêve” from Lakmé.

That quartet was like an encapsulated Natalie Dessay herself: operatic, exotic, lyrical and –like her voice, her intelligence, her stagecraft–exceptionally rare.

Harry Rolnick



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