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In five spectacular coloratura scenes from the 19th and 20th centuries, Natalie Dessay goes beyond the edge of sanity and touches the limits of vocal virtuosity.
“You’d be mad to miss it” proclaimed the striking poster for the opening poduction of the 2007-2008 season at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. The image on the poster was of French soprano Natalie Dessay, waif-like and wild-eyed, in a wedding dress and in character as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, opera’s quintessential mad heroine.
This collection features Dessay in five scenes of coloratura madness – or near-madness -- by two Italian composers, two French composers, and one (satirising) American.
Soprano characters who go insane are quite a feature of 19th-century opera, providing composers with an opportunity to write virtuosic and often adventurous music to express the wanderings of the poor heroine’s mind.
Here, Dessay sings the French version of the Bride of Lammermoor’s famous post-nuptial scene. Lucie di Lammermoor was performed in Paris in 1839, four years after the opera’s Italian premiere in Naples. Dessay first sang the Italian version on stage in Chicago in 2004. As Opera News wrote: “The French coloratura … was in superb form, her instantly recognizable timbre focused and delivered with just enough bite to keep things interesting. The voice acquires a distinctive shimmer above the staff, and it coursed through the elaborate filigree with precision and spontaneity, exhibiting liquid trills and a lovely diminuendo. Dramatically, the soprano created a tightly wound, febrile presence at her first entrance, a fragile slip of a girl overwhelmed by the dominating men around her. … The cadenza was quite heartrending … ‘Spargi d’amaro pianto’ was capped with a fully voiced, gleaming interpolation in alt, bringing a highly individual performance to a triumphant conclusion.”
Donizetti’s heroine is driven to murder, but Elvira, the bride-to-be at the centre of Bellin’s I puritani, premiered in Paris in 1835, is no particular danger to anyone; her insanity is only temporary and the opera ends happily. Her mad scene, a more conventional operatic construction than Lucia’s, features one of Bellini’s loveliest fine-spun melodies.
Nor is madness terminal in Meyerbeer’s Dinorah (1859), set in rural Brittany and notable for featuring a (silent) supporting role for a pet goat. The heroine’s delicious ‘Ombre légère’ is the opera’s greatest hit and here Dessay performs the extraordinary feat of singing a stratospheric A flat above top C.
Far more tragic in its implications is the mad scene of Ophélie from Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet (1868), described by London’s Observer as “a fiendish set-piece which … Natalie Dessay carries off with wondrous aplomb”. Poor Ophelia strays through a number of contrasting sections before a vertiginous suicidal finale. Dessay has performed Ophélie in London, Barcelona (available on an EMI Classics DVD) and Toulouse; she returns to the role in Spring 2010 at the Metropolitan Opera.
Fast-forwarding nearly 100 years Dessay takes on Cunégonde in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, based on Voltaire’s satirical novel and first staged on Broadway in 1956. This is not quite a mad scene: it starts off with Cunégonde bemoaning her descent into vice, but she cheers up at thoughts of her life of luxury, her near-hysterical coloratura reflecting the bubbles in her champagne and the sparkle of her jewels. Recorded live at the EMI centenary concert at Glyndebourne, this performance was welcomed by Gramophone as an “hilarious performance, with Dessay dazzling in the lightest of coloratura”.
Click on any of the works listed above for alternative recordings.