Natalie Dessay/Philippe Cassard, Wigmore Hall, London

 

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It is extraordinary to find Natalie Dessay, darling of the operatic stage since 1992, giving her Wigmore Hall debut now. Her horror of solo recitals and dislike of being alone on stage is a matter of record.

She is essentially a creature of the theatre, claiming to be more actress than singer ­ her feisty comic portrayal of Marie in La Fille du Regiment drew the word ‘genius’ from one London critic. This appearance was all the more intriguing considering her recent announcement, after a grisly Manon at Paris-Bastille, that she was taking a sabbatical in 2015 (of as yet undetermined length). Yet here she was, with a programme of very early Debussy songs, even down to the very first one he had written at 17, and others by Chausson, Chabrier including a beautiful setting of a Beaudelaire poem by Henri Duparc.
 
Her accompanist and instigator of the project was Philippe Cassard, who played Claire de Lune and a Fauré Nocturne with rippling confidence but no very startling insights. The songs date from Debussy¹s twenties, dedicated to an accomplished soprano with whom he had an adulterous affair. They are not really central to his oeuvre though the strange late 19th-century
musical world of swooping arpeggios and half explored hints could easily suit Dessay’s light lyric soprano. But pretty much from the off, things were far from relaxed.
 
The already low lights were dimmed yet further at her request: “I see still too much.” Dessay uses her body like an instrument, conjuring mini realities with sinuous hand gestures which seem to echo own Debussy’s own refusal of formal structure. But things are not good in the voice: occasional tightness in the upper register and trouble in the mid range worsened as the evening progressed, as did her evident unease. It is such a shame because at best as in Les Cloches her voice has an exquisite silvery quality which floats all before it.
 
This, one realises sadly, is record company Realpolitik in action, a replay of her uncomfortable 2008 Barbican recital to promote her Italian Opera Arias. And what we have here in the foyer of course is the CD Clair de Lune. On disc her voice is more relaxed, in better shape. What we have just witnessed is Dessay in Mélisande mode, in all her vulnerability and opaque suffering.

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