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Il Dolce Suono Natalie Dessay Queen

Il dolce suono mi colpì

I went to Tuesday's performance of Lucia di Lammermoor for the sake of the singing, but the quality of the performances from the four principals surpassed my expectations.  Even in a production which didn't give them much help, I thought they also each managed to give a striking dramatic portrayal as well.  Despite some inconsistent conducting and the tragic absence of a glass harmonica (beautifully played flute solo, but I want my eerie esoteric instrument, please!) Donizetti's bel canto masterpiece shone.  As far as Mary Zimmerman's production goes, I think a stylized visual vocabulary based on the tropes of Gothic literature is actually a neat idea for Lucia, and the mixture of exaggerating certain elements (see the moon, above) with naturalism didn't strike me as too jarring (pictures here.)  However, and this is a not inconsiderable criticism, I didn't feel the production gave much support to the dramatic arc of the plot or the inner life of the characters; the stand-and-sing syndrome had a tendency to manifest itself.  The production did leave space for the characters to have inner life, and the two final scenes were, I thought, superior to the rest of the production in this respect, with Edgardo's death scene visually echoing Lucia's madness very movingly.

Patrick Summers' work in the pit seemed somewhat erratic.  Balance was an intermittent issue (this is Donizetti! don't drown the singers!) and disciplined leadership of the orchestra seemed to be intermittent as well.  Different sections would come to prominence without clear reason (that I heard,) and there were a few moments where things seemed to be close to veering out of control.  The mad scene was done without the usual orchestral accompaniment.  The singers kept calm and carried on, however, and Dessay bowed elegantly to Summers at the curtain call, so perhaps my concern is disproportionate.  And the solo harp was great.  I know I always say that the chorus was excellent... but the chorus was really excellent, contributing not only fine, vigorous and intelligible singing, but also the sense of pressure from collective mood which--I think--is so important in Lucia.  Matthew Plenk, as the ill-fated Arturo, contributed beautifully sweet-toned singing.  And although Arturo isn't given much opportunity for character development, Plenk wasn't careless about the dramatic side of the role; he was convincing as an elegant, arrogant young member of the elite.  Kwangchul Youn was an impressive piece of luxury casting as Raimondo.  He produced beautifully stentorian sound, and a chilling portrait of a pragmatist convinced that his own opinions are identical with moral verities.

Ludovic Tézier, in my first experience of him live, confirmed the impression garnered from DVD and televised performances that he is capable of creating an unsettlingly complex character in an "evil baritone" role.  His Enrico was violent, vengeful, and jealous of his perceived social and moral right to dictate his sister's future (insert rant about patriarchy here.)  However, he was also very clearly an intelligent man under immense pressure, whose desire for the alliance with Arturo is (at least in his own conception) far more than mere ambition or self-preservation.  Also, whereas Mariusz Kwiecien, in the '09 run of this production, was physically threatening--even sexually threatening--towards Lucia, Tézier's Enrico clearly cared for her.  When, in desperate anxiety, he forcefully grabs her wrists, throwing her off-balance, it's clearly a shock to both of them.  In the mad scene, his initial rage switches to terror, and a heartrendingly apparent (conditioned) inability to express his genuine love and grief.  Enrico acts despicably; but I ached for, instead of merely hating him.  In the first act, he sounded a bit strained at the top of his range, but this improved over the course of the evening, and he has a simply gorgeous timbre, which he wielded powerfully and expressively throughout--truly charismatic singing.

When Opera News ran this article on Edgardo as one of opera's great romantic heroes in musical and dramatic terms, I was deeply unconvinced.  Joseph Calleja's performance, however, made all the points I thought the article failed to do.  He was ardent, melancholy, intensely loyal yet volatile of temperament... a Romantic hero, in short.  His "Sulla tomba" was outstanding, and he went from strength to strength throughout the evening, compelling in the second act, crackling with intensity in the Wolf's Crag scene, and heartbreaking at the conclusion.  I felt as though I were holding my breath, and I don't think I was the only one.  In this staging, and this performance, Edgardo's final scene is hardly less than a mad scene itself, and its vacillations of mood were brilliantly captured without sacrificing a building intensity.  Absolutely secure technique communicating absolutely convincing anguish, it was brilliant, and at last cathartic.  Zimmerman's staging of Lucia's ghost is a touch I really do like: she comes in and tries to comfort him, caressing him, but he only becomes sure of her as his life ebbs away.  She bends in to embrace him... and lays her hands on his to draw the dagger from its sheath, and force the point home.  It's shamelessly morbid, Gothic romanticism, and I thought it worked remarkably well.

I can't quite count myself out of the category of those who were concerned about Dessay's vocal suitability for this role at this point in her career.  I was eager to see her, but worried: wasn't she moving into baroque?  Maybe; but for right now she is owning Lucia, thank you very much.  Was it a vocally flawless performance?  No.  Was it unforgettable?  Absolutely.  Dessay's dramatic commitment was fearless without being histrionic, and her intensity gave the performance a breathless, edge-of-your-seat, what-happens-next quality.  And she still has trills and coloratura runs that are breathtaking.  In the first act, she seemed less than perfectly secure in intonation; perhaps a need for the voice to fully warm up led to an apparent shade of hesitancy, of conservatism, which was nowhere to be seen by the second act. I thought her acting was, from first to last, superb: her Lucia was a passionate young woman of sheltered life but wonderfully independent spirit.  Her vocal and her dramatic portrayal are well-nigh inseparable. The increasingly manifest fragility of her psyche was heartbreaking; the interiority of her morbid interjections in the scene with Enrico saved them from melodrama.  The mad scene was possibly one of the scariest things I have seen in live opera; and before her final "Ah, non fuggir, Edgardo," Dessay let loose a sudden, bloodcurdling shriek.  I loved her for this: oh, I'm sorry, opera audience, did you think that the horror of the chorus was quaint and you could sit back and bask in some "Culture"? Wrong!  I swear we heard Lucia's mental disintegration as an ongoing process, not merely as accomplished fact.  The sensuality of her imagined nuptials scandalized the chorus and broke my heart.  The doctor who swept her up in his arms for the tableau at the end of the scene (with helpful chorus members) was fortunate in the fact that Dessay is a petite woman; the applause went on for a long time.  Of course, the opera needs the final scene that was sometimes cut for nineteenth-century divas, and Calleja did indeed sing it with deeply moving fervor.  When, at long last, the lovers lay down in each other's arms, the audience caught its breath for a moment of silence before the applause.

Company bows:

Dual bow after company bows (mid-hug.)  Dessay didn't linger on her first set of solo bows, and people were standing up in front of me for the second set she was pushed into, but they happened.

French soprano Natalie Dessay first rose to global prominence in 1990, winning first prize at the International Mozart Competition in Vienna. In the years to follow, she made her debuts with the Opéra Bastille, Vienna, Lyons, Aix-en-Provence, Metropolitan, and La Scala opera houses, returning to the Met in 1997 in Adriane and The Tales of Hoffman. After making her solo recording debut on EMI in 1995 with a set of Mozart concert arias, she released French Opera Arias in 1996, and the LP Vocalises in 1998. Recordings of operas by composers such as Mozart, Donizetti, Monteverdi, and Bellini followed in the 2000s, as did solo albums including 2007's Italian Opera Arias and 2009's Bach: Cantatas. In 2013, Erato released Entre Elle et Lui, which saw Dessay accompanied by Michael Legrand on his own songs. That same year, after appearing at the Met in Handel's Giulio Cesare and in Toulouse as Massenet's Manon, Dessay, still in her late forties, retired from the opera stage.

The singer returned to the studio, however, and in 2016 released her first English-language album, Pictures of America. Consisting of selections from the Great American Songbook, it was released by Sony Classical. A year later, the same label issued Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, a previously unrecorded Legrand oratorio for one voice and orchestra that had been offered to Barbra Streisand in the '70s. ~ Marcy Donelson & Jason Ankeny

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