It is delightful to sit in an audience that is perfectly charmed, to look around and see heads tilted back as people listen, smiles on nearly every face and eyes lit up as they take it all in. There wasn’t a single bored or unhappy face under the house lights that Saturday night: Veteran coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay managed to charm us all at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall with a stunning recital of pieces by C. Schumann, Brahms, Strauss and Debussy.
From the moment she took the stage in a stunning silver-blue dress, the French singer’s smallness and delicacy of movement held the house spellbound. The soprano is not shy about movement as many soloists are, possibly owing to her background in ballet. She tossed her arms to and fro with the rhythm when it pleased her and walked around the grand piano to face everyone in the audience, quite secure in her command of the stage. The Davies Symphony Hall is a breathtaking yet intimate space with a small amount of seating available at the performer’s back — a dimension that was not lost on Dessay, who reached out to everyone in the room.
As other critics have noted, Dessay tends to start small and blossom with confidence as the evening progresses. Her early Schumann selections seemed hemmed in, as if she was still taking stock of herself. However, after the first break, she reached more spirited pieces, such as “L’invitation au voyage” by Duparc, and she expanded into them with gusto. By the time she reached the up-tempo “Fruhlingsgedrange,” the singer was playful, in love with her art. The phrasing of this piece in particular showed the masterful partnership between the soloist and her accompanist, managing the quick musical turns and following each other in the rollicking rhythm.
Vocal difficulties surfaced past the halfway point: Dessay’s voice foundered a tiny bit in lower-composed arias like “Prison,” breaking almost imperceptibly when nearing her vocal break. The audience seemed more effusive for her moment of vulnerability. Cries of “Brava!” overwhelmed the sidelong murmurs confirming that the issue had not gone unnoticed. The same difficulty persisted throughout much of the recital, but the singer was able to keep it to a minimum with professional grace. Dessay has undergone vocal-chord surgery in the past — it is helpful to remember that the human voice is imperfect, subject to the passage of time more than any other instrument.
Dessay’s strongest moments came when her natural coloratura shone through. Her interpretations of her chosen set were dramatic and lovely, as much a show of acting ability as singing. However, her lower-range work has a distinctly un-bel canto sound to it, almost as if to make opera conversational. When the composition called for the nimble and delicate touch of her upper register, she was fearless, vaulting straight into the most technical phrases effortlessly and with perfect pitch.
Her accompanist, Philippe Cassard, is a gem unto himself. The communication between the two was unerring and nonverbal — a simple glance or even a tilt of the singer’s head was enough to indicate readiness. The pianist’s hands marvelously supported and lead the singer without ever overshadowing her. Cassard is a brilliant player and a gifted collaborator. When they entered and exited together, he first held and then kissed her hand when presenting Dessay to the audience. It was a joy to watch them work together.
The recital drew to a close with Debussy’s “La Romance d’Ariel,” Dessay’s strongest offering. The piece is near-perfect for her range and timbre, accentuating her light forays into her upper register, allowing for a great deal of emotional input. The chosen arrangement allowed for a quick repetition of the refrain, which Dessay delivered with her eyes closed in ecstasy. The soprano was lovely and absolutely adept in this piece, emanating joy and filling the hall like the light glancing off her sequined bodice.
Cassard and Dessay returned twice to a standing ovation for encores, elated despite clear fatigue. The audience was charitably delighted, but did not keep demanding after the bonus. Everyone seemed to gain a collective sense that we would be best served to exit gracefully. Long arms held aloft, Dessay disappeared backstage. With a planned absence from the world of opera slated for 2015, it was saddening to see her go.
Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].