Two years ago, when I was starting this blog, and dressing up as La Dame aux Camélias for Halloween, and discovering the amazing talent of opera singer Natalie Dessay, could I have possibly imagined that I'd get to see her in her first run of performances as Violetta Valéry--my favorite soprano taking on this iconic character? No, I wouldn't have dared! But yet--un di felice!--I did just that on July 24.
The role of Violetta, Dessay has said in interviews, is at the edge of her range as a singer, normally sung by women whose voices are a little heavier and more dramatic than hers is. It also gives her an opportunity to move beyond playing the virginal ingenues that are the stock-in-trade for her voice type. She is debuting it at the Santa Fe Opera, a smaller, friendlier opera house, in a new production directed by her frequent collaborator Laurent Pelly.
What I liked best about Pelly's production is that it worked around the limitations of the Santa Fe Opera House (outdoor theater, no fly space) and proved you don't need ostentatious Second Empire décor to effectively produce Traviata. That's not to say that every moment was perfect. The emotional impact of the finale to Flora's party was completely undermined when the chorus started swaying side to side in what looked like bad community-theater choreography.
But when Dessay burst onto that stage at the top of Act I, dressed in a magenta tulle concoction and fishnet stockings, leaping between the different levels of the set, screaming in wild exhilaration, and doing her trademark "be hoisted by the male chorus" thing, nothing could dim her luster. She played the opening scene feverish and manic and very, very drunk. Her flaming orange hair wasn't particularly flattering, but it fit her portrayal of Violetta as someone trying too hard to hold onto her giddy party-girl lifestyle.
At the end of Act I comes Violetta's great soliloquy, from "Ah fors'e lui" through to "Sempre libera." I was curious to see Dessay's take on this piece because it has so much subtext, so many pitfalls for the actor. In most opera arias, the character fervently believes whatever he or she is singing about. But in "Sempre libera," Violetta is trying to convince herself that she believes what she's singing, while stifling her deeper instincts, which are telling her the opposite thing. At first the aria may sound bubbly and lighthearted; but I think that underneath it is really quite angry.
And Dessay got that. She rolled the "r" in the word "gioir" and snapped it off with vicious determination, showing us that Violetta is willing herself to "gioir" (have fun, live it up). She hit the final E-flat loudly and in tune, but it wasn't exactly a pretty sound. Yet in the context of the aria and the character, it worked. It was Violetta screaming out one final time in defiance of her fate, not Natalie Dessay trying to hit a high note.
Alfredo gets his big moment at the top of Act II, but I was not too impressed with the singer, Saimir Pirgu. Some of his high notes were flat, and Dessay upstaged him during "De miei bollenti spiriti" by swinging her feet back and forth as he sang. I thought this was a bit rude of her; then again, a tenor ought to have the presence and acting skills to draw the focus to himself during his big aria!
Fortunately, Dessay had an excellent scene partner in Laurent Naouri, who played Giorgio Germont-- and, offstage, is her husband! He had the most powerful voice of any of the singers, and a memorable stage presence: already much taller than the petite Dessay, his ramrod posture and silk top hat made him even more imposing. Knowing that Naouri and Dessay are married in real life, my greatest fear was that they'd have the wrong kind of chemistry--it would not be appropriate for Violetta and Germont to look like they want to jump in bed together! But they remained perfectly convincing and in character: Naouri the bourgeois father-figure blind to his own failings; Dessay vulnerable, childlike, clinging to his lapels. Yet Naouri was not merely stern and stentorian: he sang a beautiful, tender "Di Provenza."
The best singing in the second half of the opera--and a moment I hope never to forget--was Dessay's "Addio del passato." She hunched on the bed, no longer trying to amaze us with acrobatics or big gestures--just intensely felt, intensely focused, piano singing. She held the final note for an astoundingly long time, and the audience held its breath along with her; when it was over I could sense the whole theater exhaling and taking a brief moment to say "Wow" to ourselves before we burst into applause.
Certainly, I could see how Verdi probably intended some of his more dramatic outbursts to be sung with a fuller, juicier voice than Dessay's small-but-precise instrument. Nonetheless, she was always perfectly audible, and scoring a knockout "Sempre libera," duet with Germont, and "Addio del passato" is a triumph for any soprano--so does it matter if she couldn't declaim a few passages with the proper strength?
Most importantly, Dessay's performance made me realize something that had never occurred to me despite my familiarity with this story. La Traviata is not just about how piteously Violetta coughs or how pathetically she dies; it's about how hard she fights, every moment along the way. Fighting with herself about whether to accept love (Act I); fighting to hold onto the love she has won (Act II); fighting to keep her dignity (Act III); and finally, most nakedly, fighting for her life (Act IV). At every turn, she is defeated, but there is something heroic in the struggle. From what I've read of Natalie Dessay, I get the impression that she sees herself as a fighter--crusading for better opera productions, pushing herself to be a better actress, struggling against the limitations of her own voice. Perhaps she drew upon this quality when creating her interpretation of this musically and dramatically challenging role. And--unlike Violetta--she was not defeated.
All photos Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera.