Natalie Dessay may have retired from the opera stage, but her art continues to live on. And while she admits to never having felt comfortable on the stage, her performances show otherwise.
Born on April 19, 1965, OperaWire takes a look at some of her unforgettable roles on stage.
Olympia in ‘Les Contes d’Hoffmann’
The role of Olympia was perhaps the one that brought Dessay acclaim and shined a bright international spotlight on her. She first inhabited the automaton in 1992 at the Bastille in a production by Roman Polanski. It would be her warhorse for many years in houses like Lyon, Orange, Vienna and even the Metropolitan Opera. There are several video recordings of her Olympia and one always notices the amount of fun she had as the robot. Later in her career, Dessay was scheduled to sing all three heroines but opted out of Olympia and Giulietta and instead took on Antonia.
Marie in ‘La Fille du Regiment’
Dessay is probably one of the reasons Donizetti’s comic gem returned to the stage. Alongside her friend and frequent collaborator Laurent Pelly, the two created a staging that showed off the soprano’s coloratura pyrotechnics as well as her physical abilities as an actress. The production traveled all around the world including Vienna, New York, and London and was recorded three times. It was one of the last operas Dessay sang on stage.
‘Lucia di Lammermoor’
Dessay is one of the few sopranos who actually took on both versions. She first sang the French version in Lyon and recorded it alongside Roberto Alagna. It would become her warhorse as she opened the 2006-07 Metropolitan Opera season as the tragic heroine and would go on to perform it at the San Francisco Opera. She reprised “Lucia” at the Met in a later season and it was featured in the Live in HD series. Dessay also sang it in Paris. One of the notable things about her interpretation was the cadenza she created for it, which did not include the flute.
Amina in ‘La Sonnambula’
For many, she is probably infamous for leading the disastrous staging at the Metropolitan Opera which set the work in a rehearsal space. However, Dessay dominated “La Sonnambula” for a very a long time. She headlined a new version of the Bellini gem at the Santa Fe Opera in 2004 and recorded a CD version. She also opened a new production of the work in Paris and also performed it at La Scala in 2001 and in Lausanne in 1998.
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“I can say frankly, we always feel like we’re on holiday when we travel together,” says French opera singer Laurent Naouri of touring with his wife, Natalie Dessay. “No other hassles but music — no bills, no domestic chores — voilà.”
Sounds perfect — and the couple’s latest getaway is also a treat for audiences as they are in the capital to perform together at the opening concert of Abu Dhabi Festival’s main programme.
It’s a fitting launch for this year’s event, which has chosen France as it’s “country of honour”. The couple will perform a hand-picked programme of “exquisite, quintessentially French” songs — solos and duets — by the likes of Fauré, Poulenc and Delibes, backed only by piano.
Indeed, it was their Polish pianist Maciej Pikulski who suggested the idea of an intimate show, featuring just the three of them, in 2014.
Naouri and Dessay have shared an opera stage previously during their 20-year marriage, but such a stripped-back pairing would play out their romance more publicly than ever. Who was first to say yes?
“Well, maybe I started off a little more enthusiastically,” says Naouri, “but it did not take very long to convince Natalie. Not at all.”
There were two rules when selecting the repertoire. First, though they are both renowned opera singers — him a baritone, her a “retired” soprano — no arias were allowed.
“We don’t like opera without the orchestra,” says Naouri, 51.
Rule two? French lyrics only.
“It’s logical for French people to sing in French,” says Dessay, 50, with characteristic clarity.
Still, performing such “quintessentially” French songs, based on 19th-century texts by greats such as Hugo, Verlaine and Baudelaire, does carry certain preconceptions.
“There’s maybe, sometimes, a misconception that these songs can be kitschy,” says Naouri. “Some French singers have a way of dealing with this repertoire I don’t agree with.
“In the early 20th century there was a kind of emphasis on the most innocent, sentimental aspects of the poetry, forgetting that all these texts were written by very lively personalities, full of fire, full of passion. We try to sweep the little flowers and decorative mannerisms away, and present these poems with all the passion we feel they were written with.”
Talking to the couple, in separate interviews, it can seem that they hail from opposing poles. Naouri is warm, chatty and effusive, speaking in long, meandering monologues. Dessay, meanwhile, talks in short, sharp phrases, brittle with wit and verve. Opposites do attract, it seems.
Regardless of their different demeanour as interviewees — and, it should be noted, we were speaking in English — there is one thing on which they readily agree: there was not a moment of conflict while creating the programme of music that the audience will hear at Emirates Palace on Sunday, April 10.
“It’s not difficult to sing together, not at all, because we have the same musical experience, the same taste — it’s something organic,” says Dessay. “We argue about children, and education, but about music — never.”
Naouri is a touch more romantic in his assessment.
“[Singing together] releases a lot of pressure on both of us,” he says. “The most difficult thing is really that I want her to be proud of me when I sing. It’s not about her working with me, it’s about her being in the hall. I really want her to be happy with what I do.”
It is a strikingly honest sentiment. There’s no denying that despite the co-billing, Dessay’s fame is significantly greater than Naouri’s. And while he continues to tread the boards at opera houses around the world, resuming a stint in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande later this year, Dessay retired with great fanfare from the form in 2013.
“For me, opera was like a golden cage,” she says. “After a while I really wanted to escape, to express myself in a different way.”
These include performing English playwright Howard Barker’s one-woman monologue, Und, and a recent role in the Paris premiere of the Stephen Sondheim musical, Passion.
It does not seem too unfair to ask Naouri whether he is ever intimated by his wife’s renown?
“Not at all,” he says. “When we met 26 years ago, it was obvious she was going to be one of the 10 most important singers of her generation. It was clear to me from the start. At that time I didn’t even know if I’d chosen the right path — I was considering actually giving up singing — so all in all, it’s developed in quite a fortunate way.”
• Natalie Dessay and Laurent Naouri in Recital is at Emirates Palace on Sunday, April 10, at 8pm; tickets start at Dh125. For more information, visit www.abudhabifestival.ae