“It’s not that I’m leaving opera,” she told Le Figaro. “It’s that opera is leaving me.” By that, she meant that she was increasingly uncomfortable to be nearing 50 and still playing teenagers. But she had nowhere else to go in the repertory, having never been quite as convincing, vocally or dramatically, in tragic parts like Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor or Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” and lacking the vocal heft to shift to heavier roles.
In many ways, Handel’s Cleopatra has best fit the bill over the past few years, showing off Ms. Dessay’s high-flying coloratura prowess and her more mature side. Last year at the Met, she was game for the role, if vocally ill at ease. On Sunday, in a smaller hall, with a smaller orchestra and a conductor with whom she seems entirely comfortable, she was more persuasive.
Ms. Dessay’s voice is now an exaggerated version of what it was in her heyday, for both better and worse. The floating, bell-like clarity she used to attain on certain notes may, if anything, be even more uncannily lucid now, and her precision in quick-moving runs — like those in the triumphant “Da tempeste” — remains exceptional. But what used to be just a hint of sour thinness in her tone, which you either accepted as a quirk or didn’t, has become more pervasive.
In “V’adoro pupille,” Ms. Dessay lacked a certain measure of sensuality, and in the great lament “Se pietà,” her phrasing was too curt to build emotional momentum. But Ms. Haïm and Le Concert d’Astrée, sounding silky and suave, supported her at every turn, and Ms. Dessay’s voice blended into the instrumental textures in “Piangerò” to ravishing effect.
Mr. Dumaux, who played the villainous Tolomeo opposite Ms. Dessay at the Met last year, was here promoted to the opera’s title role, sounding forceful but without edge as a confident yet sensitive Cesare.
Le Concert d’Astrée was sweet-toned and alert throughout, with crucial solos from the violinist David Plantier and the flutist Sébastien Marq. The ensemble was particularly artful in the Suite in G from Handel’s “Water Music,” a cleverly selected interlude that matched the arias on the program in vivacity and poignancy.Continue reading the main story
The fact that the role of Handel's Cleopatra includes enough music to fill out a CD, and that, combined with the music's demands for immense virtuosity and versatility, makes it a daunting challenge and Natalie Dessay is impressive in her account of these excerpts. Dessay's singing is not entirely consistent throughout the album, recorded in 2010, whether because some arias are simply better suited to her voice than others, or because she was not at her best for some of the recording sessions. While the agility and precision of her coloratura are always intact, in some selections, such as the arias "Tutto può donna vezzosa," and "Venere bella," Dessay's voice sounds lighter than it does on albums from earlier in her career, and even a little breathy in her lower register. In other arias, though, she conveys the remarkable fullness and purity for which she is renowned. "Se pieta di me non senti" is breathtaking; her gleaming tone is practically voluptuous and she spins lines of miraculously velvety smoothness and searing emotional intensity. "Piangerò la sorte mia" and the substitution aria "Per dar vita all'idol mio" are other highlights that showcase Dessay at her most vocally and dramatically dazzling. Mezzo-soprano Sonia Prina as Caesar is a capable partner for Dessay in several recitatives and the duet, "Caro! Bella!" Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d'Astrée, frequent collaborators with Dessay, bring their characteristic finesse, spirited intelligence, and dramatic urgency to the music, and the realizations of the continuo parts are especially inventive. Virgin Classics' sound is exceptionally vivid and present, with good balance.