Natalie Dessay’s ProMusica recital at the Maison Symphonique last night should have been an art song lover’s dream come true: a kaleidoscopic programme featuring Clara Schumann, Brahms, Fauré, Poulenc, Duparc, Strauss and Debussy, and a world renowned diva lauded for her Zerbinetta as much as her Lucia. Instead the audience was treated to a bizarre spectacle of over-expression and under-singing which, despite Dessay’s considerable abilities, resulted in an emotionally flat and frequently uncomfortable two hours.
It all started moments after the soprano first glided onto stage. During the opening piano lines of Clara Schumann’s “Liebst du um Schönheit,” Dessay began to sway her hips and twist her arms suggestively upward, causing a few raised eyebrows. It turns out that this is how Natalie Dessay “gets into the mood” and, true to form, how she performed nearly every song of the 26 on the programme, regardless of the style, topic or emotional content of the poetry itself.
Dessay’s eccentric and self-absorbed manner could be forgiven if it didn’t interfere with her vocal production. But too many moments of unsupported singing coincided with her most excessive gesticulations, leading me to believe otherwise. Rare moments of bodily stillness accompanied some of the most beautiful singing, such as in Duparc’s “Extase”, performed simply, with an almost pure tone, and an uncommon attention to the narrative content of the poetry.
Despite my misgivings, her talents were on ample display. Her voice has an elastic quality, allowing her to switch registers and tonal colours with astounding efficiency. Her pianissimo high notes are second to none, and phrase endings that seem to taper impossibly towards a nearly inaudible final consonant come naturally and without struggle. But therein lies the root of my discomfort: Dessay seemed uniquely indifferent to the poetry, opting instead for a liberal application of impressive but arbitrary vocal effects which did nothing to further the emotional or narrative trajectory of the song itself. The result was that she seemed to be having more fun than any of us.
Surely the “art” in art song signifies something deeper and harder won than the “artifice” it might imply. The challenge - and the art - of song lies in its brevity, its unity and its storytelling intensity, all this to be accomplished through the expressivity of the voice, with a minimum of physical acting. Where Zerbinetta might hike up her skirts and twirl, the recitalist has to conjure the same image through her voice. Paradoxically, it is the restraint of the medium that produces the emotional intensity which this genre elicits in its very best moments.
Poulenc’s Fiançailles pour rire came off the best, particularly “Violon”, if only because the musical style suited Dessay’s swaggering deportment. Presentation and content were united, benefiting both poetry and music. A set of five Fauré songs, including “Après un rêve” and “Clair de lune” was uncomfortable from beginning to end, Dessay seeming to improvise her interpretation, and frequently looking to pianist Philippe Cassard between songs for memory cues.
Cassard was the image of the sensitive and impeccable accompanist. His technical agility was astounding, but never stole the show. Polite to a fault, the piano’s lid was wide open but never sounded beyond a mezzo-forte. Not exactly a chamber music partner, Cassard’s playing was nonetheless flawless, particularly in an encore pastiche of Debussy’s piano and vocal versions of “Clair de lune”.
Dessay performed an encore every time she was called back to the stage, and because Montrealers are too polite to let anyone leave the stage with less than two consecutive bows, she gave four. She seemed at her most relaxed making jokes with the eager audience about what to sing next; I left the concert convinced that only a world famous singer could get away with four encores after such a strange performance.
I can’t think of a musical phenomenon so difficult to define, characterise or explain as late 19th-century French song or mélodie. It belongs neither in the salon nor the concert hall, it owes nothing to the German lied or folk tradition, it doesn’t offer instantly memorable tunes or big climaxes. Instead it wafts, it wisps, it wanders, it meditates, suggesting rather than stating emotions in washes of scumbled colour.
Its impressionistic elusiveness finds its ideal interpreter in Natalie Dessay, that unique French soprano of whom London has heard too little. There’s something evasive about Dessay’s voice and personality – something which in the opera house makes her a haunting Manon, Mélisande and Lucia – and her Wigmore Hall recital debut, devoted to mélodies, was marked by a tantalising, teasing refusal to come clean.
Nerves initially may have played their part. She came on to the platform late, she fussed about the lighting levels in the hall. In an opening song by Debussy, whose little-known early work formed the core of the programme, she sounded shrill and nasal, the tone so occluded that barely a consonant could be distinguished through the haze.
But by the end of her first group she had established some poise, and when in Debussy’s L’Archet (The Bow), she sang the lines “Elle avait une voix étrange/ Musicale, de fée ou d’ange” (“She had a strangely musical voice, the voice of a fairy or angel”), one magically felt she could only have been referring to herself.
More Debussy followed: a sinuous and melismatic Rondel Chinois, round which she wove her arms like a ballerina, a delightfully playful Fête galante, an Apparition in which she made you not only see but also smell the “étoiles parfumées”.
The second half began with Chabrier’s hesitantly beautiful Chanson pour Jeanne and Chausson’s rapturous Le Temps de lilas. But the highlight was Dessay’s veiled and shimmering account of Duparc’s masterpiece L’Invitation au voyage, in which her vision of Baudelaire’s “luxe, calme et volupté” dissolved into the deep velvet cushioning of Philippe Cassard’s wonderfully soft-textured pianism.
But like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Dessay makes hungry where most she satisfies. Her singing never moves straight forward; it avoids the obvious, the clear-cut, it treats words as if they were paint. And in her throat, these mélodies remains a mystery, a realm in which shadow counts for more than light.