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Singing With the
Big Girls

Singing With the
Big Girls


Natalie Dessay's new recital album Italian Opera Arias raises her to the level of Opera Diva.

French soprano Natalie Dessay first splashed on the scene in the mid '90s, and quickly established herself as a leading interpreter of light coloratura roles. In more recent years Dessay -- who can, by now, rightly call herself a diva -- has been gravitating toward a heavier, meatier, more dramatic repertoire, and her new recital album, Airs D'Operas Italiens (Italian Opera Arias) is the culmination of years of work toward that end. Fans have been awaiting such a disc with bated breath, and the end result is one of her best albums to date. Dessay's intelligent choice of repertoire and recent strides to overcome illness and vocal problems have put her on very firm ground.

The disc opens with a very unexpected (and risky) selection: "Ah fors'e lui" and "Sempre Libera" from Verdi's Traviata. The role of Violetta is usually coveted by heavier set, more dramatic sopranos -- even Renee Fleming has not been entirely successful in mastering the role's many challenges. But Dessay's portrayal is at once winning and firm, with a surprising assurance and gravitas. "Fors'e Lui" is delivered with pathos and introspection. Dessay follows that track with another from Traviata, "Sempre Libera," which Dessay also seems to pull off with nary a flaw in execution or technique. One would like to hear her perform the entire role.

The "mad scene" from Bellini's Puritani is the third track and gets off to a good start as well -- only Callas, perhaps, has equaled Dessay in pure pathos. Unfortunately, Dessay slightly disappoints in the cabaletta (the second, faster part of the aria). It, oddly, lacks drama, and Dessay seems to be just singing the notes (albeit beautifully) instead of living the role. This is somewhat made up for by some astonishing embellishments in the repeat of this section.

The capstone or climax of the album is another mad scene -- the famous one from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. This is one of the grandest and most difficult passages in all operatic literature -- a real tour-de-force. The story is too involved to go into here, suffice it to say that the eponymous heroine has gone insane and fatally stabbed her groom on her wedding night, after which she indulges in seventeen minutes of vocal pyrotechnics and promptly expires onstage.

Few have been able to bring this off successfully, but Dessay has carefully studied the role and pulls out all the stops. Vocal embellishments (for which the magnificent Joan Sutherland was quite noted in her interpretation of the role) are excised here in favor of dramatic intensity -- and it works. Dessay makes this over-the-top role (which, in the wrong hands, can seem campy and silly) believable, human, and even touching, not just an excuse for breathtaking singing. Adding an eerie touch is the use of the glass harmonica, the instrument that accompanies Lucia in her madness. Although Donizetti originally wrote the part for this instrument, in modern times it is usually performed on the flute; however, nothing touches the original for all-out weirdness. (It sort of resembles the odd sound of the theremin in 20th century B-movie science fiction epics).

Over the years, Dessay's voice has acquired a certain edge which may not appeal to all listeners. This comes across the most in the scene from Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, the most disappointing track on the album. However, the purity of sound is always steady and rewarding. As an added bonus, Dessay is backed up by the period-instrument Concerto Koln, whose clean articulation on gut strings and natural horns makes the recital particularly worthwhile. Add to this excellent engineering, fine production values, and a bonus DVD of Dessay performing the Lucia mad scene at the Met and you have a release to treasure.

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