Natalie Dessay – Carnegie Hall 3-12-14

This was Dessay’s New York recital debut, which I didn’t quite believe when I read it in the program. However, the program is probably to be trusted as far as that goes. Surprising, though, isn’t it? Especially given how much people here love her – I got into a very animated bathroom line conversation with one woman about her; this woman mentioned that Dessay had the option to become an actress and chose opera instead. I can believe it.

At the start of the program, I had the same impression I had listening to Magdalena Kozena sing a song program here about a year ago, that Carnegie Hall’s main auditorium was too big for music like this. You can hear everything just fine, but there’s a mismatch between the intimacy of the music and the scale of the hall. This impression vanished by the time Dessay reached the Duparc songs in the first half, however. I’m not sure how or why it vanished, but it did. And she sometimes used the size of the place to advantage. Dessay is a gesturer, big-time, when she’s singing. I had my eyes closed most of the time, so I missed a lot of the visuals, but this was certainly the case during the sets of Poulenc and Debussy songs in the second half.

She started out with some German material, four songs from Clara Schumann and some Brahms. Dessay did not seem quite as much in her element with these as with Debussy or Poulenc – or maybe it was just because they were the first items on the program. I enjoyed the Brahms more than the Schumann, but even with the first of the Brahms songs, “Lerchengesang,” (Op. 70, no. 2) I kept waiting for the beautiful shimmery sound that I know Dessay can make, but it didn’t quite appear. The turning point came with the following set, two songs by Henri Duparc. By this point, as noted, my sense of the size mismatch between songs and the big auditorium was gone, and the second of these two selections, “Extase,” was over far too soon. This was followed by four Strauss songs. Dessay’s expressive acting was evident in “Ich schwebe” and the second one, “Wasserrose,” had moments of glassy, ethereal beauty in both vocal part and piano (pianist: Philippe Cassard). The last two songs were switched from their order on the program – she did “Die Nacht” first followed by “Frühlingsgedränge.” I think this was because the latter of these is more obviously climactic than the first, but I have two stars marked next to the former in the program – the line ending “weg vom Feld” in particular. Occasionally when she’s at around what I think is maybe the middle/lower part of her register, there’s something about the sound that is so direct, as if she’s just speaking rather than singing – it’s really neat.

But the second half the recital – songs by Fauré, Poulenc and Debussy – was my favorite part. This material had a light, effortless clarity of expression and interpretation; you could feel exactly what Dessay was doing with every phrase – the rhythm and shape of each one seemed to do exactly what it ought to (it’s funny how you can hear that even if, like me, your comprehension of sung or even spoken French is extremely limited) and her voice had the shining beauty of tone that I remembered from hearing her in Giulio Cesare last year.

She and Cassard did three encores – I missed the explanations of what they were, but I believe Cassard said one of them was Debussy. Either way – this was totally worth it. (And I can confirm that the sound up in the cheap seats at Carnegie Hall is great.)