Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The "Dolce Suono" of Natalie Dessay

I'm back from seeing Natalie Dessay in Lucia di Lammermoor at San Francisco Opera. Lots to say about this, so I'm splitting it into two posts: one about Dessay's performance and the other with my remaining thoughts about the opera.

I viewed Lucia di Lammermoor from the Balcony Circle, in kind of a multitasking fashion. I rented opera glasses to get a better view of the singers' expressions, plus, if I craned my neck, I could see the high-definition "OperaVision" screens that hung from the balcony ceiling to provide close-up views to the people seated far in the back. I tried to avoid looking at the screens much, though--it was too reminiscent of watching the Met opera broadcasts on TV. I wanted the kind of experience you can only get in the opera house.

People have claimed that Dessay's voice is on the decline, especially after her surgeries to remove vocal nodes--and, for instance, she has some problems on her latest album, Italian Opera Arias (an ugly high E at the end of "Merce diletti amici"). Still, I was reserving judgment till I heard her in person. And I have to say, I'm no expert on the intricacies of bel canto style, but I had only one problem with her voice: in the aria "Quando rapito in estasi," which has several quick upward runs, Dessay seemed to consistently miss the first note or two of each phrase. I don't mean they were off-key, just inaudible. But other than that, I am still completely bowled over by the way that Dessay can sing a soft legato line and still be heard. As well as her musical and theatrical intelligence in general.

Dessay first appeared roaming around the heather and rocks, awaiting her secret lover Edgardo. When Alisa (Lucia's friend) tries to dissuade her, Lucia says something to the effect of "No, I must warn Edgardo of the terrible danger!" On the word peligro (danger), Dessay made a big gesture demonstrating that Lucia was actually excited by the risk involved. This same mood carried over to her singing of the ghost-story aria "Regnava nel silenzio," which I doubt has ever been performed so playfully.

Dessay displayed this same spiritedness at the beginning of Act Two: when Enrico asked her to "come closer," she instead turned away and sat pertly on a chair. But then the following scene depicts the systematic wearing-away of poor Lucia's self-confidence; by the end, Dessay huddled in her chair or clung to Raimondo for dear life. And I loved that after reading the forged letter claiming that Edgardo is unfaithful, her voice seemed to come out in little sobs.

For the wedding scene, Dessay changed from her soft floral-printed cotton dress into a stiff satin gown--hemmed in by duty, no longer the girl who freely romped around the moors. By this point, Lucia is so depressed and powerless that she can barely react even when Edgardo crashes her wedding. As the curtain fell, Dessay was crumpled on the ground while Arturo strode arrogantly to claim her. She made a belated attempt to scramble away, but got tangled in her skirts. This image reinforced the specifically sexual horror of Lucia's story--forced to go to bed with a man she does not love.

The scenery in this production was dominated by two big pairs of walls, one that slid open horizontally, the other vertically. Though they didn't do much for me the rest of the opera, they stunningly introduced the Mad Scene. Like an "iris" effect in cinema, all 4 walls slid open at the same speed to reveal Lucia in her bloody wedding dress, standing in a field of red flowers, in front of a full moon. Very cool.

The chorus drew to the shadows at the sides of the stage, giving Dessay free rein to "do her thing." Early on she tore off her wedding dress and performed the rest of the scene in a plain white bodice and petticoat. She pulled out Edgardo's red tartan shawl from behind a rock, wrapped herself in it, and used it as an altar when envisioning her marriage to him (which recalled the blocking from the earlier Lucia/Edgardo scene). The Mad Scene had haunting glass harmonica accompaniment, including an original cadenza, which Dessay performed sitting on the edge of the stage. This is the ultimate example of her ability to make coloratura meaningful. The impression I got was that Lucia wanted to sing joyful roulades as she pictures her life with Edgardo, but the glass harmonica pulled her in a different direction--minor-key, blue-note melancholy. At the end, the tension between Lucia's imagined happiness, and her dawning awareness (represented by the glass harmonica) that something was amiss, became too much for her, and she ended the cadenza laughing nervously.

Lucia's delusion became even more eerie when she mistook Enrico for Edgardo--clinging to him and earnestly insisting that she always loved him. But when she realized her error, she completely lost her mind. She let out a scream so bloodcurdling that it was amazing she could sing in her pretty lyric voice just a few seconds later.

For "Spargi d'amaro pianto" she picked up a sword and began cutting deliberately at her arms, face, and shoulders while singing the coloratura. This was a great choice on many levels. For one, we know Dessay's top register has lost some of its richness and fullness, but would anyone's voice sound rich when they are slicing their arms open? Fuller-voiced Lucias often perform this aria as a mournful lament, but Dessay's more piercing voice communicates searing pain, alienation, and true insanity. She thus used her vocal limitations to dramatic effect. Furthermore, the swordplay fit this Lucia's personality--the young girl from Act 1 who was attracted to danger, who lived on the edge.

Also, Lucia's self-mutilation justifies her sudden death after this scene. It's always rather cheesy when opera heroines die of "a broken heart"; and though Lucia has lost her mind, many people go insane and still live. (Donizetti himself got dementia, caused by syphilis, in 1843 but didn't die till 1848.) But considering the wounds that Dessay's Lucia gave herself, no wonder she died.

I had my opera-glasses tightly focused on Dessay's face as she finished this aria--because she's the opposite of someone who merely opens her mouth and sings. Moments before she was to sing her final "ah-ah" phrase, you could see her get the idea to do it. She widened her already large eyes to a full-on raving stare, slowly spread a creepy smile on her face, raised her sword-arm, and only then sang the "ah-ah-ah!" while cutting into her shoulder or her collarbone. Then she fell down and writhed on the floor, laughing hysterically, toying with the sword, as we gave her a huge ovation.

In short, this was a fierce performance. The first thing my dad said to me as we left the opera was "That woman is amazing! She still had energy at the end!" (Yep, I think he's Natalie's newest fan.) And I overheard this conversation between two other men as we walked to the BART station:
MAN 1: "I'm just saying, you would've thought someone would've tried to take the sword away from her."

MAN 2 (a big broad-shouldered fellow with a shaved head): "I wouldn't have wanted to get NEAR her!"
Though the sets, costumes, and staging of the production I saw are over 10 years old, every soprano still gets a chance to make Lucia her own. By way of comparison, I've embedded a video of June Anderson singing "Spargi d'amaro pianto" in this same production, and you can go to the SFO website for some brief clips of Dessay. I like Anderson's interpretation, but she's much more of a traditionally gentle, lost, heartbroken Lucia. With her, you're really likely to wonder why no one takes the sword away--she wouldn't fight back. Whereas Natalie Dessay wielded that sword with masochistic glee, and wielded her voice fearlessly throughout--she's tiny, but made of steel.

All photos by Terrence McCarthy, San Francisco Opera.

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