Natalie Dessay: Opera is an art of the past
March 27, 2017 by norman lebrecht
The French soprano does not believe that opera can relate to modern times – despite her husband earning rave reviews this month in a world premiere.
Interview with Forum Opéra here.
Je me suis souvent sentie en décalage, à part, car je ne me suis jamais considérée comme chanteuse mais comme une comédienne qui chantait. Dans le monde de l’opéra, j’ai toujours été mal à l’aise, une étrangère en fait. J’ai pourtant beaucoup aimé faire ce métier mais sans jamais perdre conscience que c’était un art du passé, un monde clos, et je pensais : mais quelle raison peut-on avoir aujourd’hui de chanter sans micro ?! Sauf de faire vivre un répertoire en étant écartelé entre le musée et la nouvelle lecture.
Q. Pourtant Laurent Naouri fait un succès dans Trompe-la-mort, la création de Francesconi à Garnier. Comme quoi, il y a quand même du renouvellement à l’Opéra.
C’est vrai, certaines œuvres modernes pourront passer à la postérité, comme celles de Thomas Adès ou John Adams, mais elles sont extrêmement rares et ne viennent pas infirmer l’idée que l’opéra est un art qui n’a pas su se renouveler.
Read on here.
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“I fell in love with the place,” she said. “I love the openness of the land, which you don’t get in Europe, because everything is so crowded. But I also fell in love with the quality of the orchestra and the chorus.”
She immediately expressed an interest in returning, and the company amended its 2004 season to add Bellini’s “Sonnambula,” which Ms. Dessay had sung in Europe but not in the United States. She returned to Santa Fe in 2006 to sing her first Pamina in Mozart’s “Zauberflöte.”
The Santa Fe “Sonnambula” was mostly well received, something that cannot be said of the Metropolitan Opera staging of the opera that opened this March, also featuring Ms. Dessay. It met with boos from the balconies and venom from the blogs, directed not so much at Ms. Dessay or her co-star, Juan Diego Flórez, as at the production team, especially Mary Zimmerman, the director. But Ms. Dessay did not emerge entirely unscathed.
Ms. Zimmerman had directed Ms. Dessay the previous season at the Met in a new production of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which also alienated many opera buffs. Now Ms. Zimmerman reconceived “La Sonnambula” as a show within a show: actors rehearsing a production of “La Sonnambula,” a ludicrous tale of a sleepwalking bride-to-be, begin living the story in real life. Opera purists felt that the intrusive concept showed disdain for the work, and some began to point fingers at Ms. Dessay as well amid reports that she had had a hand in the production. Ms. Dessay denies any such involvement.
“Mary is not interested in working on the words and the text,” she said. “She’s a more visual person, and she’s very gifted at that. But that’s not enough in opera. You really have to tell the story, even if the story is really, really dumb. After having this idea, she couldn’t direct us as actors.”
Ms. Zimmerman, for her part, said: “I have the greatest respect for Natalie, but I disagree with her here. The desire to tell the story, to embody a text in a clear and illuminating way, is what drives me in all my work. I’m very proud of what we all did together on ‘Sonnambula.’ I think the acting in it, all around, is remarkably specific and rich and true.” After “La Sonnambula,” Ms. Dessay returned to France for a couple of months before heading to Santa Fe last week with her husband, the bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, and their two children. Mr. Naouri will join her in “La Traviata,” singing the role of Germont in 8 of the 11 performances. (The last three, in August, will be sung by Anthony Michaels-Moore.)
Although Ms. Dessay has never performed a full “Traviata,” she and Violetta are no strangers. She has sung the signature aria from the first act several times in concert. At the Met’s 125th-anniversary gala in March she performed it wearing a reproduction of a gown worn by the Brazilian soprano Bidú Sayão, who sang Violetta to great acclaim at the Met in the 1930s and ’40s. “Violetta was a dream that I didn’t even have because I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it,” Ms. Dessay said, referring to her lyric coloratura voice and repertory. “I come from a very, very high rep. Today high sopranos don’t usually sing ‘Traviata.’ It’s normally for a dramatic coloratura.”
But the lure of Violetta proved too strong for a soprano who says that acting is as crucial as singing. Ms. Dessay disdains the practice of standing stationary and belting out arias using little body language, an approach she refers to as “park and bark.” There was also the lure of working again with Laurent Pelly, who directed her in “La Sonnambula” at Santa Fe in 2004 and in Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment” at the Met.
“I wanted to try ‘Traviata’ in a smaller theater,” she said. “I wanted to make it between Laurent and me, and in Santa Fe it’s like a family. I’m interested to know what Laurent sees in me that can be Violetta. The thing that I have trouble with is this need for redemption she has. I have to find a way to make it believable. I have to find a way to work on the guilt.”
Ms. Dessay acknowledges that modern audiences may have difficulty with the notion that Violetta’s tarnished chastity would cause such an utter downfall.
“We have to respect the fact that society was really powerful,” Ms. Dessay said. “Women were prisoners. You have to respect the fact that it could not happen today. Violetta could escape.”
Ms. Dessay spoke of plans to sing “La Traviata” in Japan next year, in Aix-en-Provence in 2011 and in Vienna and at the Met in 2011 or 2012.
As her repertory list gets a boost from the elegantly suffering Violetta, so does her love of the process of memorizing, rehearsing and refining opera’s tragic and comic heroines.
“What I like is rehearsing and acting as much as singing,” Ms. Dessay said.
“If I could be paid only to rehearse,” she added with a laugh, “that would be great.”Continue reading the main story