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 Lucia di Lammermoor, Marie (La Figlia del Reggimento), Amina (La sonnambula), Pamina (Die Zauberflöte), Manon, Juliette and Ophélie (Hamlet), Dessay originally made her reputation with showpiece coloratura roles such as Offenbach’s Olympia, Mozart’s Queen of the Night and Strauss’ Zerbinetta.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, 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.
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, including her debut appearance at La Scala in Milan. The 1990s also brought the Queen of the Night at Aix-en-Provence, Ophélie (Hamlet) in Geneva, Aminta (Die schweigsame Frau) in Vienna, Fiakermilli (Arabella) for her debut at the New York Met – followed by Olympia and Zerbinetta, Lakmé at the Opéra Comique, Eurydice in Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers in Lyon, and, in Paris, Morgana in Handel’s Alcina and the title role in Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol. Conductors for these appearances included Pierre Boulez, James Levine, James Conlon, William Christie and Marc Minkowski.
She also worked with Laurent Pelly, notably in Orphée aux Enfers (1997), for the first time in the role of Marie from La Figlia del Reggimento by Donizetti, as well as in Pelléas and Mélisande that was also recorded on DVD (2009).
More firsts follow in 2009 with Violetta in the summer in Santa Fe and Musetta at the Opéra de Paris in the autumn. Paris will also mount a new production of La Sonnambula for her in 2010. Her first appearances in La Sonnambula came in 2004 in Lausanne, Bordeaux, La Scala and Vienna (with Juan Diego Flórez) and her interpretation of Amina was recorded during concert performances in Lyon in November 2006 and released by Virgin Classics in autumn 2007.
Her 2 CD and DVD compilations Le Miracle d’une voix, released in 2006, have proved an enormous success, selling over 250,000 copies, each documenting her prowess as a singer and as an actress.
Her latest released album, Clair de Lune/i>, contains melodies by Debussy with Philippe Cassard at the piano. On 2012 fall, Haendel's Jules César at the Opera de Paris under the baton of Emmanuelle Haim is published by DVD.
The most part of her major roles are also available on DVD, all recorded with Virgin Classics.
“Lucia di Lammermoor” is a tale of rival families, and poor Lucia is caught in the middle. Her brother, Lord Enrico Ashton, panicked that he has squandered the family holdings through his obsessive battling with the hated Ravenswood clan, wants Lucia to marry the wealthy Lord Arturo. But she has fallen for the Ravenswood heir, Edgardo, whose passion is in some ways as oppressive as her brother’s bullying. Lucia has become a fragile thing who keeps seeing a ghost of an ancestor who was killed by a jealous Ravenswood lover.
Ms. Zimmerman has done some miraculous work in the theater, including her adaptation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” She is newer to opera, and her work here, though compelling, seems less confident. As she has said in recent interviews, “Lucia” is sometimes milked for psychological subtexts, sometimes treated as historical melodrama. A director could present Lucia’s ghostly visions as evidence of her shaky mental state or as a real part of the world Scott depicts.
Ms. Zimmerman opts to do a little of both these approaches, which could have been a recipe for disaster. Not here, for the most part. The sets deftly mix abstract and storybook imagery: in the first scene, for example, where a mossy mound of grass and brush sits atop shiny geometrical floorboards, with a background of leafless trees.
In trying to make the phantoms of the opera real, Ms. Zimmerman sometimes goes too far, as in Lucia’s first scene, when she appears at the fountain where she has met Edgardo and encountered the ghost. Ms. Dessay looked both striking and pitiable in her sensible walking dress, complete with hat and boots. But as Lucia tells her companion, Alisa, of the ghost she has seen, singing the alluring aria “Regnava nel silenzio,” we see the ghost, a haunted, pasty-faced young woman, who beckons Lucia.
Though a powerful image, it proved a distraction to Ms. Dessay’s lustrous singing. Sometimes in opera the music alone is the drama, especially when performed as vibrantly as it was here.
Ms. Zimmerman also seems to have been impatient with the dramatically static sextet in Act II, when the distraught Lucia, duped into thinking Edgardo unfaithful, marries Lord Arturo. Edgardo comes bursting into the wedding party, and everything stops as the justly famous sextet begins. Donizetti meant for the main characters to be frozen in place as they mull over their own thoughts. Nothing happens. That’s the point. The tension is internalized in the soaring and elegant music.
Instead Ms. Zimmerman invents an action: the wedding participants and guests are assembled by a photographer for a formal photo. Though the moment is beautifully directed, this staging device, again, overwhelmed the stirring performance.
But mostly Ms. Zimmerman has imaginative staging ideas and elicits nuanced portrayals from the cast. In Ms. Dessay’s first scene Lucia breaks into an ecstatic cabaletta to sing of her heady love for Edgardo. Racing about the stage as she sang, Ms. Dessay, in midphrase, skidded on a floorboard and fell down. Born actress that she is, she just kept singing, shrugging her shoulders as if to say, “What are you going to do?,” then finished the aria in triumph. Her response was actually in character for a young woman all giddy in love.
Staging and singing worked in tandem arrestingly during Lucia’s Mad Scene. The set was almost abstract, just a bare balcony and spiral staircase against a backdrop of blue night sky and moon. The crazed Lucia, having stabbed her husband to death on their wedding night, appears on the balcony to the terrified guests. With her huge, vacant eyes, just as in those posters all over town, and her bloodied dress, Ms. Dessay moved not with halting steps but in nervous spurts. When she recalled melodic phrases from the love duets, she sang in a voice by turns tremulous, pale, throbbing and unsettlingly brilliant.
Ms. Dessay’s Edgardo was the Italian tenor Marcello Giordani. His singing was not flawless. He sometimes bellowed and lacked pianissimo subtlety. Still, he has genuine Italianate style and an exciting, robust voice. Mariusz Kwiecien has emerged in recent seasons as a major baritone. This handsome and dynamic young Polish artist was a vocally impassioned Enrico, who made that sometimes flat character seem in ways as desperate as the sister he controls.
The commanding bass John Relyea brought rare dignity to the often cardboard role of Raimondo, the chaplain who advises Enrico, causing no end of trouble. An appealing young tenor, Stephen Costello, had a solid Met debut as the well-meaning Arturo.
Presiding over it all was Mr. Levine, who conducted with pliant bel canto grace while keeping the overall performance taut, crisp and articulate. This familiar score has seldom sounded so virile, sweeping and multilayered.
When Mr. Levine appeared for curtain calls, Ms. Dessay bowed and touched the stage floor in tribute. She probably thinks photographs of Mr. Levine should be plastered all over New York as well. She looks better and will sell more tickets, especially when word gets out.
LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR
Opera in three acts by Gaetano Donizetti; libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, after Sir Walter Scott’s novel “The Bride of Lammermoor”; conductor, James Levine; production by Mary Zimmerman; sets by Daniel Ostling; costumes by Mara Blumenfeld; lighting by T. J. Gerckens. At the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, through Oct. 25. Running time: 3 hours 25 minutes.
WITH: Natalie Dessay (Lucia), Marcello Giordani (Edgardo), Mariusz Kwiecien (Enrico), Stephen Costello (Arturo) and John Relyea (Raimondo).Continue reading the main story