Natalie Dessay Sings French at Jordan Hall

Opera Diva Featured Elegant Songs of Love

By: - Mar 13, 2014

Natalie Dessay, vocalist
Philippe Cassard, pianist
A song recital presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

Works by Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Henri Duparc, Richard Strauss, Gabriel Fauré, Francis Poulenc and Claude Debussy
Jordan Hall of the New England Conservatory
March 8

Natalie Dessay is one of the most glamorous opera stars on the stage today. The epitome of the thinking singer, she brings a close reading of the texts to all her performances, making comprehension of their ideas a primary concern. A passionate actress as well as a first-rate singer, she brings her roles to life like few of her peers.

Although she is celebrated today for her interpretations of dramatic ladies like that of Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” and the title role in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lamermoor,” Dessay started off with lighter fare, both Mozart and the French repertoire. I’ve seen her only once perform on stage, as Olympia in Offenbach’s “Contes d’Hoffmann,” at La Scala Milan in one of the most over-the-top campy productions of any opera I’ve ever seen; she like the other performers got lost in the theatrical extravaganza. Offenbach might have deserved the treatment; Dessay did not. Her silvery soprano cut through the frenetic stage business.

The film “Becoming Traviata,” a documentary of a Jean-François Sivadier production of the Verdi classic at the 2011 Aix-en-Provence Festival, reveals the painstaking work Dessay goes through to achieve the director’s concept – in this case one focused on realizing the composer’s intentions. (I saw the film in its brief Boston run at the Museum of Fine Arts. The full opera production is available on YouTube – increasingly everything is available on YouTube.)

Now approaching 50, Dessay is winding down her operatic career, singing popular music – she toured last year with Michel Legrand – and giving song recitals.

I don’t know about Legrand – his songs are one of many aspects of French culture that do not translate well on these shores – but we can be grateful that Dessay is appearing in smaller theaters singing the classical song repertoire.

Dessay walked on stage to an adoring sold-out audience with the authority of a veteran singing-actress. For those who note such things, there was a costume change during intermission; in both halves of the concert she wore low-cut floor-length gowns.

Dessay assembled a primarily French program with enough German songs to give the evening some weight. Like many female performers today, she included some female composers – the concert began with a selection of songs by Clara Schumann and it included a song cycle by Francis Poulenc set to poems by Louise de Vilmorin. It might have been nice if she had included songs by a contemporary female composer – living composers, female and male, can use all the help they can get.

The songs she chose, both French and German, were about love, often sad or unrequited – typical song literature. Happy loves tend not to make great poetry. Brahms’s “Dunkel klingen meine Lieder!” (Dark is the sound of my songs!) set the tone of the evening. There were dreamscapes – Henri Duparc’s “L’invitation au voyage” to a text by Baudelaire the best example. The refrain of the vision of an island of love and pleasure contains the oft-quoted lines, “Là, tout n’est qu-ordre et beauté,/Luxe, calme et volupté.” (There all is harmony and beauty, luxury, calm and delight.) A little prematurely for these parts, there were many references to spring, which only made some of us long for the end of this endless winter all the more.

From the first line of the first song, Clara Schumann’s “Liebst du um Schönheit” (If you love for beauty), Dessay gave each song a sensitive reading, with pianist Philippe Cassard providing a appropriate accompaniment. (Cassard was given only one moment of his own – in the first encore, Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune,” something of a cliché, but he played it with loving attention.)

Dessay’s singing was impeccable – she chose her songs well. In a few instances it was evident that she was carefully negotiating the high notes, but she made every one of them, beautifully. And, as one expected, she enacted each song through gesture and expression as if it were a little drama.

It is a reflection of my taste, not her performance, that eventually it became a little boring, too much of the refined good taste the French song literature is known for. The audience loved it, however, giving Dessay a diva’s ovation. In the back of the balcony, there was a row of students who whistled and shouted as if they were at the rodeo.

Celebrity Series is sponsoring a couple of more song recitals in the coming months. On April 27 at Symphony Hall, American soprano Deborah Voigt will sing songs by Amy Beach, Richard Strauss, Respighi, Tchaikovsky, Ben Moore and Leonard Bernstein. On May 10 at Jordan Hall, Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky will sing songs by Rachmaninoff, Medtner and Tchaikovsky. As part of it Debut Series, Celebrity Series will present tenor Nicholas Phan on April 17 at Pickman Hall at the Longy School in Cambridge, where he will sing songs of Benjamin Britten. For more information go to