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
In the season of celebration a critic may lead the revels or cast a shadow like the uninvited wedding-guest. In the present instance I can't quite wholeheartedly appear as the first and am unwilling to perform as the latter. Dessay is a singer of real merit, distinguished among her present-day colleagues and, as Michel Parouty's notes remind us, in line with some notables of the past. I don't find a personal timbre that might bring a thrill of recognition such as often arises out of a chance encounter with a great singer. Nor, in the flesh or to some extent on records, have I found a purity, warmth or (complete) steadiness of tone to draw me into its orbit and place it (let's say) among these I have loved.
But, make out a form where separate items in the high sporano's attainments are listed and I'd probably have to tick every box. Range, flexibility, intonation, precision, scale-work, trills, staccati: all of these. There is an imaginative care, too, which looks for poetry in the once-hackneyed songs of Dinorah and Lakmé. Juliette's waltz-song is animated with a youthful zest which knows that excitement may lie in the shade as well as in the light. Lucie's madness (for this is the French version) derives its effectiveness from keenly observed hints in the score interpreted with a full exercise of every technical and emotional faculty.
In the three Mozart arias she is particularly admirable. The Queen of Night imposes a glittering, fearsomely precise authority; her daughter (moved along at a quickish tempo) grows into womanhood and turns in dejection towards a kindly death; and in the concert aria Alceste addresses the people of Thessaly with passion, hitting squarely the G in alt, the highest note Mozart wrote for the voice. Rachmaninov's Vocalise muses luxuriously, and Bernstein's Cunegonde brings the unexpected revelation of comic grandeur.
The DVD shows her also to be a producer's dream, acting out his liveliest fancies, and singing just as well whether running about, lying down or copulating with a fly. She seems infinitely adaptable. For instance, in one production of Les contes d'Hoffmann, the doll is all jerky mechanics, in another (the song taken adagio) she appears to be comforting the inmates of an asylum, and in a third she is a diminutive Shirley Temple figure backed by six outsize replicas. There are two Zerbinettas, with only their notes and bare midriffs in common. The mad scenes of Lucie and Ophélie are undoubted triumphs but take an inordinately long time. “Glitter and be gay”, from the Glyndebourne celebration of 1997, is even better seen than merely heard, and so, according to taste (for this contains the copulatory matter) is the mouche duet from Orphée aux enfers, with the finale thrown in for good measure.