Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn: Vorwurf (Lenau)
Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn: Suleika (Willemer)
Clara Schumann: Liebst du um Schönheit
Clara Schumann: Sie liebten sich beide
Clara Schumann: Warum willst du and’re fragen
Clara Schumann: Er ist gekommen
Clara Schumann: Romance A Minor, Op. 21, No. 1
Alma Mahler: Bei dir ist es traut (Rilke)
Alma Mahler: Laue Sommernacht (Falke)
Alma Mahler: In meinem Vater’s Garten (Hartleben)
Ernest Chausson: La Chanson perpétuelle
Francis Poulenc: La Dame de Monte Carlo (texte de Jean Cocteau)
Claude Debussy: Mes longs cheveux descendent (Pelléas et Mélisande)
Jules Massenet: Élégie pour piano
Jules Massenet: Pleurez, pleurez, mes yeux (Le Cid)
Charles Gounod: Ah, je ris de me voir si belle (Faust)
As a dedicated opera buff for many years, I have never felt the same kind of passion for song recitals, even if they typically provide an always welcome more intimate experience. But then again, there are exceptions to the rule. And one of them took place last Saturday afternoon at La Sapienza University’s Aula Magna, where the Istituzione Universitaria dei Concerti was presenting French soprano Natalie Dessay, one of the biggest names in the opera world for the past few decades, accompanied by her long-time partner in music Philippe Cassard in their woman-centered program “Paroles de femmes” (Women’s Words).
The occasion was all the more special because, having retired from opera performances in 2013, Dessay is currently on her farewell tour as a singer, making the opportunity to catch her singing while we still can even more urgent. Not that the prospect of having to contend ourselves with her prodigious acting talent in the future is all bad, but let’s face it, things will likely never be quite the same.
So on Saturday afternoon, I put work in the back-burner, braved the miserable weather, and eagerly sat into my perfectly located seat in the reasonably filled concert hall. A few minutes later, the ovation greeting the artists’ entrance was unusually long and warm, to the point where Dessay herself, smartly dressed with black pants and a tastefully glittery shirt under cascading blond hair, looked genuinely puzzled.
The first half of the program revolved around Germanic female composers living at the wrong time to get the fame and fortune that they deserved. Kicking things off with three lieders by Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn, whose gift for melody was clearly as tremendous as her more celebrated brother’s, Dessay brought her radiant voice and confident technique to the richly lyrical compositions and easily nailed the engaging mini set.
A household name as a child prodigy and pianist, and later teacher, Clara Schumann was not as widely recognized as a composer, but compose she did, and very well too, as the four pieces of hers selected by Dessay and Cassard proved. Even better, during the three lieders, Dessay’s sharp pronunciation and my feeble left-over German skills allowed me to catch a few words as an added bonus to the much-enjoyed Romantic episode. After a wonderful piano-only interlude with Cassard taking on Schumann’s Romance in A Minor, Op. 21, No. 1, we smoothly transitioned from early 19th-century Germany for late 19th-century Austria.
Her musical talent originally stifled by her older and high-profile husband, Alma Maher did not get around to nurturing it properly until later in life, but she still managed to eventually come up with plenty of commendable lieders. Dessay and Cassard treated us to delightful interpretations of three of them, and we all happily indulged in the romantic atmosphere of “Laue Sommernacht” and the sweet dreams of “In meinem Vater’s Garten”.
After the intermission, the duo came back to tackle the more familiar French half of the program. It started with Ernst Chausson’s “Chanson perpétuelle”, during which a woman suffers abandonment from her lover and broods endlessly about it until, well, she ends it. Fully grabbing the ill-fated heroine’s sweeping emotional arc, consisting essentially in the bliss of the past, the distress of the present and the suicide of the future, Dessay expertly moved from understated lament to the kind of explosive finale that made me wonder how such hair-raising vocal power could come out of such a petite person.
Suicide by drowning was also in the air in the second French piece, “La Dame de Monte Carlo”, a work composed by Francis Poulenc from a poem by Jean Cocteau. Describing in telling details and vivid colors the downward spiral of an aging woman addicted to gambling in the glamorous French Rivera town, the work provided Dessay with plenty of opportunities to use her superlative interpretative skills, which she did with obvious relish, all the way to her last high-flying pirouette, when she came forward and, standing at the edge of the stage with her arms crossed, expressed her utter desperation by unflappably holding the decrescendo on the last high note for what seemed like forever. And then came the implacable piano chord of the fatal splash. Fun times.
Less blazingly virtuosic, but oh so lovely, was “Mes long cheveux descendent” from Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande. The part of Mélisande is a daunting challenge for a confirmed lyrical soprano like Dessay, but she is not the type of artist who would let doubt or fear get in the way of her adventurous spirit, and on Saturday she handled it with much refined elegance, and came out a total winner.
After letting Cassard occupy the spotlight for a heart-felt “Élégie pour piano” by Jules Massenet, Dessay seamlessly moved into “Pleurez, pleurez, mes yeux”, from Massenet’s Le Cid. Highly dramatic, voluptuously lush, and yet exquisitely subtle, the aria requires rock-solid technique and full emotional commitment, which it certainly got as Dessay used the full force and range of her voice to convey Chimène’s profound agony at the thought of having to choose between her father and her lover.
But then things perked up with the third and last opera aria on the program, “Ah, je ris de me voir si belle” from Charles Gounod’s Faust, a delightfully uplifting tune that spontaneously brought smiles to everybody’s faces. Marguerite is young, pretty and ecstatically happy, and she want the entire world to know it, even if the sparkling jewels she’s so excited about will eventually lead her to a tragic end.
The Franco-German program was for sure cleverly put together, but maybe because we were in the capital of the country that gave birth to the opera form, Dessay had decided to throw in an Italian aria as an encore, and not just any aria either, as it turned out to be the lovelorn countess’ heart-breaking confession “Porgi amor qualche ristoro” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Bringing just the right amount of natural luminosity to the character’s desperation, Dessay wrapped up the concert on a truly memorable high note, eventually responding to our sustained applause and standing ovation, a rare occurrence by European standards, by pointing out that nothing could really be sung after such a flawless gem. And rightly so.