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La folie de Natalie Dessay

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Natalie Dessay, Mad Scenes

(released on November 3, 2009)
Virgin Classics 699469 0

available at Amazon
Bellini, La Sonnambula [highlights], N. Dessay, F. Mali, Opera de Lyon, E. Pidò

(released on January 27, 2009)
Virgin Classics 264736 2
Natalie Dessay has made a name for herself as a singing actress, a stunning coloratura soprano who can actually incarnate a heroine temporarily gone insane. She writes about the process in a brief liner note: "For me, as a performer, a mad scene is always a problem. After all, what is madness? Wouldn't each character have her own madness, unlike any other?" This new release -- a compilation, and therefore probably of not much interest to serious collectors -- brings together a handful of Dessay's most celebrated mad scenes, some of them actually recorded prior to the French soprano's diagnosis with vocal nodes and resulting surgeries. Two performances are from the 1990s, Bernstein's Glitter and Be Gay (1997, with the London Philharmonic, a bit of a stretch to be included as a mad scene) and Meyerbeer's Ombre légère (from the pleasingly obscure Le Pardon de Ploërmel, recorded in 1996 with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo). Both show the crystalline top, soaring pure and effortlessly, that has receded from Dessay's voice since the surgeries.

That is not to say that there is not much still to enjoy from Dessay: like a wine, the voice has lost some of its forceful edge but gained in complexity with age. The experience of her Violetta this summer at Santa Fe Opera makes it seem unlikely that there will ever be enough weight for the dramatic soprano roles, but in the other selections on this disc, recorded during the vocal trouble or after it, it is pleasing to have a broader palette of vocal color, compared to what could sometimes be a little wan and pastel at the top. The opening and closing tracks offer a comparison of the French and Italian versions of Donizetti's mad scene for Lucia, both conducted by Evelino Pidò: happily, the second version has the part for glass harmonica included, which is so memorable. Having both versions of this piece, 17 and 18 minutes long, means the exclusion of some other mad scenes that are missed, in which category by a stretch one might include her showstopping Olympia, played in Lyon sort of like a mad scene.

The most obvious omission is Amina's Ah! no credea mirarti, from Bellini's La Sonnambula, a role that has brought Dessay a lot of recognition on the stage. As a purely sonic thing it seems less remarkable, at least in the version recorded by Dessay in 2007 and recently released in a single disc of excerpts. It is also a good way, however, to discover the voice of Francesco Meli, who serves as Elvino. Even the "complete" version made cuts to the score, not that that is not sometimes justifiable (and even appreciated). On the other hand, it may be better to wait for the Metropolitan Opera's recent staging of La Sonnambula to be released on DVD next month (review forthcoming). Dessay was paired there with Juan Diego Flórez, although many were not impressed at all by Mary Zimmerman's modern updating of the story.

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