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Cassard & Dessay, De-Lovely


Thanks to the Celebrity Series of Boston, Jordan Hall resounded on Saturday with the dynamic duo of Natalie Dessay, soprano, and Philippe Cassard, piano in “Portraits de femmes.” Showcasing women in song from German and French traditions, this was a stellar soirée.

In admiring Natalie Dessay, I am hardly alone. I made special trips to the Met to hear her in Ariadne auf Naxos, before she retired that role, and had the good fortune to see her on Christmas Day in Paris as the narrator in a staged production of Debussy’s ballet Boîte à joujoux, where the charisma and stage presence came through in a speaking, non-singing, role. Closer to home, this pair appeared in Boston courtesy of Celebrity Series in March, 2014. Her followers were out in force Saturday night, enjoying the program, the witty physical interplay between the performers, and the singer’s costume changes.

Dessay entered  in a trendy black gown. With a swooping neckline, cut outs, and a semi-sheer tulle skirt, offset with gold jewelry accents, and very high heels, she cut an admirable figure, revealing the core of any singer: the miraculous the human body.  After intermission, she appeared in a pink gown and slightly less elevated footware. For the gentlemen seated behind me, the fashion was a key part of the evening.

For me, the music was the reason for the outing. Beginning with Susanna’s recitative and aria from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, “Giunse alfin il momento…,” we heard the singer’s trademark clarity and witnessed her hallmark physical embodiment of words and of roles, becoming each character in turn. This was a playful and passionate Susanna. A quintet of Schubert Lieder followed:  Geheimes (D.719), Die junge Nonne (D.828), Lied der Mignon (D.877), Suleika (D.720), and Gretchen am Spinnrade (D.118). By turns happy and lovesick, facing turmoil and confronting fate, filled with sadness and longing, each song embodied a multifaceted drama. Taken together, these five acts show the female character finding victory in the narrative or role, empowered in these dramas drawn from domestic life. The emotional arc ta moto perpetuo ending in the piano; this sound of a spinning wheel added a frisson of disease, an unsettled patter, as Dessay sang of rest and peace destroyed. The Lied built to a climactic high, deflating sibilantly and this performance magnificently captured the tension of Gretchen spinning solo, bereft of the unnamed “him.” From this turmoil we continued on the theme of loneliness but in a more dejected vein with Pamina’s aria, “Ach, ich fühl’s” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Quieter music, this is more an interior monologue we are privileged to overhear. The first half concluded with Pfitzner’s cycle of eight songs, Alte Weisen, op. 33. The defining detail:  in Röschen biß den Apfel an, narrating the child’s tragedy of biting into an apple and breaking a tooth, Rosie forgot her morning songs as a result. Singing “vergraß / Seine Morgenlieder,” Dessay suspended the opening of morning, resonating as though across an alpine valley, growing softer as the songs flee from memory. The set ended in gripping silence as the audience sat spellbound, suspended out of time. It is for such moments we populate concert halls, chills running down spines as we are transported into this world.

Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, began in descriptive music matching the textual depiction and building in emotional power and intensity, shifting from exterior to interior landscape. Bizet’s Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe moves us to an imaginary, Orientalized, world (augmented seconds and rhythms seem to foreshadow the Pantoum of Ravel’s Piano Trio). This is bravura music, her performed to perfection. Cassard took the spotlight in two Debussy Preludes—La fille aux cheveux de lin and Ondine — one seguing immediately into the next, playing with polish and elegance. The second was especially memorable, being playful and serious, at times the piano sounding harp arpeggios, at others a cat scampering on the keys, the strong Russian influences continuing this section of the recital’s exploration of musical voyages. As Ondine ended, Dessay returnedwith Debussy’s Regret, L.59/ (55), and Coquetterie posthume, L.50/(39). The first revisits the emotional economy of Schubert in different Gallic dress, while Gautier’s macabre Symbolist text became more haunting when the dying coquette manifested before our eyes, demanding funereal makeup with a syphilitic seriousness and decaying demeanor. The planned poprtion ended with Gounod’s “Air des bijoux” from Faust, with madness and delusion undercutting the jewel-toned music.

Dessay and Cassard

Thunderous applause and tossed floral bouquets garnered four encores:  Delibes’ Chanson espagnole, R. Strauss’s Breit über mein Haupt, the opening of Act III of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and an aria from Delibes’s Lakmé.

Taken together this was a fascinating selection. Depictions of women in song will always be the domain of a soprano, so this could be a trite assemblage of works by male composers which explore the varieties of roles women have, or could, assume. Dessay and Cassard gave us compelling views into the domestic dramas demarcating the lives of women precluded from the heroic (political and military) sphere. These are lives no less heroic. The male composers see power here and the performers ran with this power of the quotidian, remarking on the strength and the labor, the toil and the turmoil, so often effaced from history yet such a portion of lives lived, even if only captured imaginatively in song.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra

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  1. Dessay’s French accent was too audible in the Lieder. Since Ariadne was mentioned (not that I wanted to read, but just happened to notice), I have to add that Dessay is much more suitable for roles like Zerbinetta, who is more a worldly little woman w/o too much deep noble feeling. One could easily ‘see’ how well she fitted in those roles when she sang the French songs, often with exotic flavors attached. That is probably also the reason she chose Pfitzner. Unfortunately there are not many Zerbinettas in the great German operas. I was pleased with the inclusion of Goethe Lieders Die junge Nonne (D.828) and Gretchen am Spinnrade (D.118). Dessay’ voice just sounded too experienced and not spiritually pure enough singing the young nun and my beloved Gretchen.

    Her transition from high burst to soft whisper was very smooth and elegant. A singer who wings soft lines beautifully is always more likely to win my heart. Wish she could select more Chausson.

    BTW, The other MET fav Anna Netrebko is absolutely horrible in her Strauss recording. Maybe we should be thankful for Dessay’s Lieders (I think she is selling new CDs too).

    Comment by Thorsten — May 12, 2017 at 6:42 pm

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