Friday Hoyden: Natalie Dessay

Today you get a Friday Hoyden and an opera review all tied up into one! Last week we took the kids to see opera at the cinema, via the Met Live in HD program. Anyone who wants to introduce others to opera without spending a fortune, this is the way to do it. The tickets are more expensive than a normal cinema ticket, but they’re nowhere near what it costs to go and see a live opera, and at least you get surround-sound in an acoustically designed space.

The opera we saw was Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, which is a comedy. It’s a little bit of a rarity at the major opera houses: one reason is that the major houses have audiences who are picky about whether the singers hit the notes as written instead of transposing them to easier targets, and La Fille requires not just one but two prodigious vocal acrobats to hit the notes as written for the starring coloratura and tenor roles. [UK Channel 4 news report about this aspect of the production’s rarity here] While there appear to be a reasonable number of coloraturas who can sing Marie at least adequately, there is traditionally a definite shortage of tenors who can sing Tonio, but since Juan Diego Florez has hit his stride he has appeared in one revival of La Fille after another.

Another problem with the canonical performance appears to be that the comedy had become rather forced for modern audiences, with restrictive period costuming and stilted spoken-pieces making the action somewhat stiff and crusty.

Until last year’s crisp new Laurent Pelly production it had been 40 years since La Fille was performed at Covent Garden (see Sutherland and Pavarotti above), for example, and indeed it was rumoured that the reason Dessay dropped out of La Scala’s 2007 revival that followed closely after the hit Covent Garden revival was that they used a 1959 Zeffirelli staging (see below) that failed to excite her instead of a new Zeffirelli staging, which was what she was expecting after his recent new staging for Aida.

Thankfully the Met uses the Pelly production, so that we have not only the necessary two superb singers, but in Dessay a superlative comic actress as well, and Chantal Thomas’ updated set, Pelly’s costuming, Laura Scozzi’s choreography and the new Agathe Mélinand spoken dialogue to make the action flow and sparkle.

The major change in this production is to move the period from the time of Napoleon to World War 1, which immediately makes the costumes of the soldiers and the aristocratic characters much simpler and easier to move around in. Next, the set becomes an abstraction of the European Alps instead of a space filled with fake fir trees and a backdrop of mountains. This frees the performers amazingly, and the production takes full advantage of every opportunity to slip in little moments of pure farce, although apparently they decided to tone this down for the Met production compared to Vienna and London: the audience in NYC seem to take their opera very srsly.

Then you have a soprano willing to be perhaps the least glamorously costumed soprano ever in the first Act: Dessay’s Marie is introduced to us wearing army breeches and boots topped with a singlet and braces, and thus can be the tomboy to the hilt. Contrast how Joan Sutherland appeared in the role.

Now I remember once many years ago catching a TV broadcast of Sutherland singing Marie, and she was quite wonderful – not only the voice but also her ability to act as a playful young girl, which is quite a challenge for a woman built along such stupendously Valkyrie lines. When Sutherland hit the high notes, you weren’t surprised that such a body could produce them – by contrast Dessay’s petite and wiry frame seems to be producing the notes from nowhere, yet hitting them solidly every time. And this is after two bouts of surgery to remove nodules from her vocal chords in the early noughties: she has returned to even more acclaim for her acting skills and the precision of her vocal technique.

The best description of her performance I have read is that Dessay is “channelling the great comic heroines of children’s literature, and making scintillating sense of Marie’s idealism, her terrier loyalty, her despair, her wit and her music” . Indeed, the spirit of children’s literature seems to be the overarching concept of this production: the round bodied baldness of Sulpice, the rigid imperiousness of the Duchess, the delightfully dorky lederhosen of our first glimpse of Tonio (as Bloomberg said – “How many tenors are there in the world who can wear this garment and look silly and sexy at the same time?”).

Dessay reportedly wanted to be a starring performing artist from a very young age, but opera was not her original goal. She first studied ballet before deciding she didn’t have the necessary talent (or height) to reach the top, so she switched her aim to the Comedie Francaise. It was only after several years of study that she was asked to sing for a part and stunned everybody with her voice. Dessay then says she decided that it would be easier to become an opera star than to reach the top of the ranks at the Comedie Francaise! For her, maybe: within a few years she was winning competitions and being asked to perform around Europe.

However, she still very much regards herself as an actress, and indeed rejects the label “opera singer” in favour of “singing actress”, and feels that she’s not a particularly gifted musician. She appears less enamoured of the mystique of opera than some other singers, obviously respecting and appreciating the collaboration with her peers and the rapport with the audience but yet she appears to view it all with a hint of bemusement. In particular she has now decided that she simply will not repeat a role again and again and again after she no longer finds fresh aspects in it to explore.

Dessay’s Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute was much acclaimed (various performances on YouTube here), but after 80 performances she decided not to perform it any more, and refuses to get caught in the same trap with any other role. She now relishes the chance to make her straight theatre debut in Paris in a few years playing another singer tired of the part:

Q: Do you think you will ever do “straight theater?”
A: I will do it in three years for the first time. It will be in Paris, a play of Thomas Bernhard called The Ignorant and the Madman. I’m very happy because it’s the story of a singer who sings in Vienna, the Queen of the Night, for the 200th time, and she becomes sort of crazy about that. It’s a bit my story.

If you’ve never been into opera before, this La Fille du Régiment production would make an excellent introduction for anyone. A recording of a performance at Covent Garden will shortly be released on DVD (collection of reviews here), and the Met is also in the habit of releasing their Met in HD broadcasts on DVD.

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8 replies

  1. Excellent post! I was very sorry I missed these Chauvel shows.

  2. And this is after two bouts of surgery to remove nodules from her vocal chords in the early noughties…
    Serves her right for eating Chinese Nodules in the first place!
    Sorry, couldn’t help it… interesting detail about the relative seriousness of Met audiences, btw, when compared to European audiences. It reminds me of a detail from Berlioz’s memoirs where he talks about a tour he did of Germany and noticed how audiences there focused less on the stage and more on the copies of the libretto/score they had in their hands – in stark contrast to Italian and French audiences. (He rather appreciated being taken seriously, I think).

  3. I was very sorry I missed these Chauvel shows.

    They’re doing an encore screening next Wednesday night.

    interesting detail about the relative seriousness of Met audiences, btw, when compared to European audiences

    s’funny, but I found a lot of the humphing about Florez doing the encore at La Scala 2007 rather enlightening, in that it made Toscanini (who initiated the ban on soloist encores in 1921) sound like a right old humbug spoilsport. I absolutely adored the detail that the last encore prior to Florez was Chaliapin in 1933 while Toscaninini was away on a break. I suspect that some speculation that the management actually surreptitiously encouraged Florez to do the encore in order to generate some buzz about an otherwise flabby production might well cut close to the truth.
    Some critics have had a go at Pelly’s production for encouraging the audience to laugh immoderately at set-pieces during moments when the orchestra is performing delicate scene-setting music. That strikes me as overly purist – opera is a full theatrical experience, it’s not just about the music.

  4. P.S. I think I’m going to go for the DVD from the Covent Garden performance because the non-singing role of Duchess Krakenthorp is played by Dawn French, with much mangled franglais.
    I also note that my review doesn’t offer nearly enough praise for Alessandro Corbelli as Sergeant Sulpice, and who Renée Fleming was at pains to point out is in real life rather slender with plenty of hair.

  5. I enjoyed this review — the first that came up in a google search of “La Fille du Regiment” feminism.
    I’m one of two gay men who saw the first live broadcast. We were both pleasantly struck by Dessay’s tomboyish performance, as well as the overall fresh and delightful quality of the production.
    And, as amateur feminist critics, we wondered about the historical precocity of an early-19th-century opera that features an independent woman who apparently kept an entire male regiment in its place.
    Anybody know of any thoughtful essays on this topic?

  6. the first that came up in a google search of “La Fille du Regiment” feminism

    Ha! I don’t even mention feminism in this review, although of course it’s all over the rest of the blog.
    I don’t know of any particular feminist analysis of the character of Marie: I did read one review of Pelly’s production that pointed out that by concentrating so successfully on the farce he could not also adequately illuminate any aspect of the libretto which may have examined the gender roles of the day. There’s certainly material in the text regarding the rigid roles of aristocratic women especially, with the Marquise having to hide the birth of an illegitimate child to avoid familial shame, and Marie’s chafing at the restrictions of life in the chateau compared to the freedom of life in the regimental camp.
    I’d be reluctant to read too much into what is essentially just a romp surrounding vocal pyrotechnics. Dessay’s amazing performance as a hoyden par excellence will definitely set the benchmark for all future Maries though, making the character both much funnier and much fiercer than she has historically been portrayed.

  7. tigtog, thank you for that response. I agree that we shouldn’t take any entertainment too seriously, except that the subconscious values that infuse it do tell us at least a little about what the writer, if not the society of the time, thought about gender roles and other things.
    In any case, I like your characterization of Dessay’s portrayal as “fierce” — very much. Fierce and disarming.
    Perhaps it is this very smart production, even more than the libretto, that accentuates the gender question.
    Cheers from across the pond!

  8. Fully agree on the importance of examining subtext in entertainment generally, jimbo! It reveals more than was ever intended, always.

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