To Natalie Dessay's Detractors
July 27, 2009
A delightfully warm discussion at the dinner table before one of the operas at the Santa Fe Opera Festival a couple of nights ago about the French soprano Natalie Dessay prompts this blog post. A couple of eminent music writers (whom I admire a great deal and very much enjoyed meeting in the flesh at the Festival) consider Dessay to have a less than stellar voice and her acting to be gimmicky and repetitive.
To my new friends -- and to anyone else who thinks Dessay is anything less than one of the best performers to have graced the opera stage in a long, long time -- I say this:
People tend to forget that opera is theatre. What Dessay brings to each part she plays is "total performance". Her voice is fine and flexible -- she can sing an aria whether she's standing in the middle of the stage or lying flat on her back, and make it sound like it's pouring out of her soul. When she performs recitative, she gives the impression that she's having a visceral conversation with herself or her scene parter. It all feels so completely organic.
Beyond her vocal powers, she is also one of the most dynamic and agile operatic actresses around. Unlike Anna Netrebko, whose Violetta in La Traviata I caught at San Francisco Opera recently, Dessay actually behaved like a woman on the verge of death. Netrebko's death scene came across as a strange surprise; Dessay's was organic. Even when bouncing about the stage in a sea anemone-like, fuchsia-colored frock in the first act, the performer's rapacious energy seemed finely undercut with the manic energy of someone who knows they may not have long to live.
Admittedly, I'm not that interested in hearing recordings of Dessay's voice. It's the whole package that fascinates me: I am engrossed with her stage presence and all the elements that fuse to together to make the opera star the consummate artist that she is. I have traveled a long way to experience Dessay on stage in the past and don't plan to give up doing so anytime soon.