Natalie Dessay Orchestra

I have long admired and respected Natalie Dessay so it saddened me to hear of her retirement from the opera stage. Her fearless tackling of daunting coloratura repertoire and the searing intensity of her stage presence proved too much for such a slight physique. Having built a fine discography with Warners she has jumped ship to Sony Classical France – this lavishly presented first release may be a success in the home market but I suspect the critical response elsewhere may cause some executives to lose sleep.

Graciane Finzi’s Scénographies d’Edward Hopper is a melologue with texts by Claude Esteban spoken over a string orchestra. As a preface, Dessay has selected songs from the American Songbook matching each to a specific Hopper painting. Finzi’s tone painting is effective if unmemorable and Esteban’s texts left me out in the cold – my basic French couldn’t keep up with the semantic intricacies.

For the songs, Dessay adopts an intimate chanteuse delivery but I have long opined that few classical singers can successfully cross-over to the popular idiom unless they hail from the American continent and Dessay doesn’t convince me otherwise. She tries hard with the language but certain elisions and tortured vowels are distracting, her micro-managed phrasing sounds contrived and her laid back cool manner is soporific. The string arrangements are annoyingly pretentious. Hugely disappointing.

French soprano Natalie Dessay first rose to global prominence in 1990, winning first prize at the International Mozart Competition in Vienna. In the years to follow, she made her debuts with the Opéra Bastille, Vienna, Lyons, Aix-en-Provence, Metropolitan, and La Scala opera houses, returning to the Met in 1997 in Adriane and The Tales of Hoffman. After making her solo recording debut on EMI in 1995 with a set of Mozart concert arias, she released French Opera Arias in 1996, and the LP Vocalises in 1998. Recordings of operas by composers such as Mozart, Donizetti, Monteverdi, and Bellini followed in the 2000s, as did solo albums including 2007's Italian Opera Arias and 2009's Bach: Cantatas. In 2013, Erato released Entre Elle et Lui, which saw Dessay accompanied by Michael Legrand on his own songs. That same year, after appearing at the Met in Handel's Giulio Cesare and in Toulouse as Massenet's Manon, Dessay, still in her late forties, retired from the opera stage.

The singer returned to the studio, however, and in 2016 released her first English-language album, Pictures of America. Consisting of selections from the Great American Songbook, it was released by Sony Classical. A year later, the same label issued Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, a previously unrecorded Legrand oratorio for one voice and orchestra that had been offered to Barbra Streisand in the '70s. ~ Marcy Donelson & Jason Ankeny

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