Monday, August 3, 2009

Natalie Dessay in "Traviata": A More-Than-Viable Violetta

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.


Chad said...

I very much enjoyed your review of La Traviata. I also attended the July 24th performance, and it will be an experience I will long cherish - not so much for Pirgu's Alfredo (his performance was, in my opinion, rather forgettable), but certainly for Naouri's excellent Giorgio Germont, and most especially for Natalie Dessay's performance as Violetta Valéry. It was my first time seeing Dessay perform, and though I wasn't sure what to think when she burst onto the stage in Act I with her high squeals and her flaming red-orange hair (Cyndi Lauper as Violetta?!)I was soon swept away by her performance. I was one of those in the audience who was holding my breath during the final note of "Addio del passato," and who erupted in applause after finally shaking myself from stunned silence. I will carry that moment with me for many, many years.

Marissa said...

Thanks for visiting, Chad! I am glad that my review brought back some memories of this great evening that we both experienced in the opera house.

I liked your Cyndi Lauper comparison--this Violetta just wants to have fun!

Jose Eduardo said...

Dear Marissa

I dont leave in or arround Santa Fe and wouldt be able to attend the performance, but I not only love Nataly Dessay but I consider her, from what I've seen and heard from her recitals and recordings, the best Violeta we can imagine. It is difficult to explain our feelings when we listen or see her in this role, performing a REAL Violetta, whith its strenght and fragility, with its joy and anguish at the same time. As you said, it seems she was not a soprano on stage, bu a woman portrayin another woman (I read this frase about her and seemed so accurate)

So, from your comment, and other comments I've read, I see this presentation was exactly as I imagine and would expect. I hope some day to see her on stage in this magnificent role. Thank you so much for posting, you helped me to imagine what I unfortunatedly couldnt see by my self, at least not yet.

Marissa said...

Hi Jose,

Thanks for commenting. I too hope that this isn't the only time Dessay plays Violetta! It is such a wonderful role, and she conveyed a lot of its complexity. Including, as you said, the mix of a feisty fighting spirit, and a vulnerable fragility.

Mary Ann Slattery said...

Natalie Dessay's acting was quite wonderful, and I think I would have swung my feet during the tenor's aria, too. I couldn't believe, repeat, couldn't believe, that Pirgu was so pitch-insensitive early in the opera; there was a brief moment when the orchestra wasn't playing; Pirgu's aria did some descending, and when the orchestra came back in, Pirgu was almost a full step off in pitch - he struggled a bit to get it where it needed to go, but finally, he decided all he could do was continue. There was a lot of "head turning" during that awful moment. He was okay, but not "to die for." I loved your Cyndi Lauper comment - yikes! I thought Frederic Chaslin, the conductor, was remarkably sensitive and I was impressed by how closely he watched the singers and how he let them cue his conducting rather than "full speed ahead" during some moments when they couldn't watch him carefully. Finally, I thought the set was crazy; it was really dangerous, and I can't believe it wasn't changed to accommodate the performers better - they navigated it well, but it was distracting, as I sat there and feared for broken legs, falls, etc. Again, Dessay was lovely and the "Addio del passato" was stunning.

Marissa said...

Were we at the same performance, Mary Ann? I don't recall Pirgu going that badly off pitch, but I agree that he was a very unimpressive Alfredo.

Mary said...

I was at the final, August 29th performance and was stunned! I love Dessay and had trouble imagining her in this "Big" role but she was 1st class; compelling, funny, passionate, and so believable. When she grabbed that sheet as she fell dead to the floor, the lights went out and then came back on and was standing there looking like a ghost of herself, I gasped! (Didn't they cut out the last to lines sung by Alfredo and Germont?) What a wonderful evening. Mary McDonald, Kanab, Utah

Doris Rose said...

I loved your review, I was there all over again. I had the priviledge of a front row seat 8/26for an evening I will never forget. I have done some theatre and local opera but Natalie Dessay knocked my socks off. Her acting was remarkable and understated, her voice, alluring.

Carla said...

Excellent review!! I haven't seen Dessay as Violetta yet, but I was willing to see some comments about it. Thanks from Brazil!!

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Thanks for visiting, Carla! I think Ms. Dessay is currently singing Violetta at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC. Are you going to go see it when it is broadcast to cinemas?