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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Concert Review: The Price of Reinvention

Soprano Natalie Dessay returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Natalie Dessay. Photo © Sony Classical.
Natalie Dessay is no stranger to adversity. Throughout her career, the French soprano has battled ahead, undergoing surgery to keep her voice in fighting trim and dazzling audiences with a high coloratura that was at home in Donizetti, Mozart and Richard Strauss. Ms. Dessay retired from the operatic stage in 2013, with her last Metropolitan Opera appearances coming in a tumultuous run of Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Four years went by until her return, which came on Wednesday night upon the hallowed boards of Carnegie Hall.



Stern Auditorium, the big room that most people think of as "Carnegie Hall" is pretty forgiving as venues go, but its yawning space is more suited to orchestral brigades and choral works than an intimate recital with just piano and voice. And yet, Ms. Dessay and her accompanist Philippe Cassard made big Stern Auditorium seem like an intimate salon, helped by dimmed house lights and a rectangular light design that shrank the stage to just the length of the Steinway piano. Mr. Cassard came out, settled at the piano and began to play a bit of Le Nozze di Figaro. This melodious opening served as a kind of pillow on which Ms. Dessay presented her voice, singing "Deh vieni, non tardar" from that opera's fourth act.

The first sounds were pretty enough, but Ms. Dessay sounded a little unsure. She spent the aria cautiously unpacking her instrument. The voice is still silvery though more astringent, thinning a little at the top and lacking bloom. In the five Schubert lieder that followed, (they are centerpieces of her new record for Sony) she walked a narrow path through the passagio, the part of the voice that connects the lower register to the upper. Five songs later, the voice was alive, well, and with a new versatility, particularly in the emotional depths of "Gretchen am Spinnerade."

The Mozart that followed was in every way an improvement. "Ach, ich fuhl's" is Pamina's Act II aria, a throwback to opera seria style that just happens to be written in German. Ms. Dessay found her confidence here, soaring high as she sang of her love for Tamino and her character's anguish. And then came the evening's most unusual selection: a brace of songs by the Austrian composer Hans Pfitzner. These songs are from 1923, and have not been performed on this stage in this writer's memory.

Pfitzner a relic. His lone opera, Palestrina hovers at the fringes of the repertory, making Wagnerian demands on both singers and audiences without the emotional payoff. He is also remembered for a burning anti-Semitism, the other way in which he imitated the Wagner clan. Here, Ms. Dessay presented Alte Weisen, ("Old Times") eight songs that mirrored the far superior creations of the earlier composer Hugo Wolf. Still, these little lieder demanded a great range of vocal expressions as she offered a bouquet of determined heroines, jilted girls and passionate figures against the spare piano accompaniment. One voice objected to Pfitzner from the Hall balcony, but the audience met these creations with the polite applause they offer to unfamiliar works.

Another rare composer led off the second half, which was devoted to French chanson and opera arias. This was the "Chanson perpetuelle" by Ernest Chausson, a Gallic Wagnerian whose sweeping operas and orchestral writing deserves further consideration. This was followed by Georges Bizet's "Adieux de l'hôtesse arabe", with the former diva singing with some of the old swagger and confidence that made her a compelling Cleopatra and Zerbinetta. She left the stage bearing the flowers given by an adoring fan, leaving Mr. Cassard to his own devices.

Those devices proved to be two Debussy preludes. When the singer returned, it was from the other side of the stage, to sing two songs from that composer, using her small instrument like a pointillist's brush to create color and vivid life from the dots on the paper. She climaxed the concert with one big showpiece, the Jewel Aria from Faust and then offered four short encores. In a delightful bit of legerdemain, Mr. Cassard produced the score of each encore from the fold of his jacket, drawing laughter and applause from the house. The last two were the brief "Born on a Sunday" monologue from Act III of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, followed by the glorious final scene of Delibes' Lakme. Perhaps she has not left opera behind after all.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.