Natalie Dessay / Concerto Köln / Evelino Pido - Barbican, 26 January 2008
Dammit. If I'd known Natalie Dessay was going to change frocks in the interval, I'd have taken some pics at half time. What you see here is the pink-trimmed tuxedo suit she sported for the second half of the evening. In the first half, it was a long clingy black dress with cutaway shoulders, the sort that never wrinkles no matter how badly you pack it.
But I'd never have guessed she was the frock-changing type tonight. She stomped on with a scowl, as if she'd been tricked into appearing, and stood there glowering and chewing the inside of her cheek as she waited for her entrance. Just nerves? Probably. Something certainly affected her intonation in the opening O Nube, and I don't think it was the cough that she prefaced it with. She twisted her hands together and picked at her cuticles as she sang. Of course everyone in London loves Natalie after her barnstorming, JDF-matching performance in La Fille du Régiment at the Royal Opera House twelve months ago, so flaws were forgiven, and she got a rocketing ovation.
Perhaps this buoyed her, because she loosened up in the mad scene from I Puritani, despite another cough at the start. Notes were more accurately placed, her posture more relaxed. It was an emotionally-charged performance, lent an improvised air by a nebulous characterisation. Although she cracked on the odd high note, and wasn't always able to make dynamic shifts evenly (problems that persisted all evening), this barely detracted from the impact of a stunning performance.
Concerto Köln, conducted by Evelino Pido, provided detailed and attentive support. The rapport between Pido and Dessay was audible and visible as he communicated her every vocal gesture to the orchestra.
Often the orchestral element in this sort of concert is bland filler, but the brief Overture from Roberto Devereux that opened the evening was crisply-executed and thrilling, its God Save the Queen motif providing some inevitable giggles.
Cherubini's 25-minute Symphony in D major, which opened the second half, was more of an uphill struggle. Probably more Cherubini's fault than Concerto Köln's - his construction is so immaculate that every note sounds inevitable, to the point of predictability. Concerto Köln and a sweat-bathed Pido certainly did justice to this rarely-aired work, but I think it's something I'd rather hear in some other context than slap-bang in the middle of a bel canto recital.
It was a relief to have Natalie back on stage - and she looked a lot more comfortable swathed in her tuxedo suit than she had in the skimpy dress. It was all Verdi for her second half, beginning with a Caro Nome of featherlight charm, man-pants notwithstanding. She slowly walked off the stage as she sang her last few bars, sustaining the long piano notes rock-solid as she descended the steps to the exit. What was going on? Pido looked a little confused, though it was hard to tell how much of that was theatrics. A Barbican flunky sprung up on stage with a chair. Perhaps that was the reason for Natalie's departure, as she reappeared to take a seat in it while Pido spun the orchestra through the Traviata Act I Prelude.
At this point I noticed an unexpected addition to her hairstyle. At first I mistook it for a loose strand, but no, photographic evidence supported my suspicions. Tears For Fears live on in the skinny plait tucked behind Natalie Dessay's left ear. So that's what she was up to during the Cherubini.
The big finale was the solo from the end of La traviata's first act. I awaited another pre-aria cough, but none came. What a place to drop your weapon. Natalie's Violetta was in the rudest of health, a feisty mademoiselle short on vulnerability, long on resolve. She sang with grace, fluid charm and immense joie de vivre. Coloratura and ornament never sounded rushed, pushed or purely decorative. As she demonstrated so emphatically in La Fille du Régiment, in her hands it is a vital dramatic tool, seamlessly integrated into the vocal line. What seemed on paper the riskiest part of the programme for a soprano of Natalie Dessay's abilities turned out to be its greatest triumph.
As I (still) haven't seen Netrebko's Covent Garden Traviata (wipes away a tear), I can't compare - but in a week of high-profile cancellations, Natalie scores bonus points for simply turning up.
A standing ovation elicited two encores and the boldest singing of the night in Oh quante volte from I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Spargi d'amaro pianto from Lucia di Lammermoor.
Teh order of play:
Donizetti - Overture from Roberto Devereux
Donizetti - O Nube + Cabaletta from Maria Stuarda
Bellini - O rendetemi...Qui la voce...Vien diletto from I Puritani
Cherubini - Symphony in D major
Verdi - Caro Nome from Rigoletto
Verdi - Prelude from La traviata
Verdi - 'E Strano…Ah fors’e lui… Sempre libera from La traviata
Bellini - Oh quante volte from I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Donizetti - Spargi d'amaro pianto from Lucia di Lammermoor
And here's Natalie Dessay's Traviata. Sempre Libera as broadcast on France 2 TV on December 9th 2007: