As Natalie Dessay walked onto the Barbican Hall platform on Saturday evening, it was evident that something was wrong.
The singer’s natural ebullience and charisma seemed muted; she looked strangely troubled, rather embarrassed, and struggled to smile into the auditorium.
Her loud coughs before singing did not bode well either.
Whatever it was that was wrong hampered Dessay throughout the concert. Her coughing was easily forgettable, but moments of strain and uncertainty in her singing were not. Following extensive surgery on her vocal chords in recent years, Dessay’s voice has not retained its former ease and purity, but recent recordings (one of La Sonnambula, for example, released by Virgin Classics) have demonstrated that her sound is still beautiful and her delivery still secure, however idiosyncratic that delivery can sometimes be.
In this concert’s first half, however, an ease of delivery was only present in Dessay’s lengthy piano lines (oddly, since these lines are fiendishly difficult). In O nube from Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, the ascending scalic figures of the melody were uneven and potentially shrill up above, while the higher lying notes tended to be smudged, harsh crackling in the throat making an unwelcome appearance in one. The mad scene from I puritani found some vocal improvement, but problems of projection now surfaced, ones not helped, admittedly, by some occasionally too eager dynamics from the Concerto Kln.
It was in the second half that Dessay began to thrill. Her voice still troubled in Caro nome from Verdi’s Rigoletto, various cracked notes interfering with the musical line, but her characterisation, previously hazy, began to convince. Though a dress change made her look somewhat like a sexy professor, Dessay instilled the character of Gilda with pathos and dignity, presenting to one a convincing portrait of a young woman discovering her sexuality and beautifully struggling to express it. The singer’s endlessly sustained trill as she walked off stage was glorious.
The Act One finale from Verdi’s La Traviata was also commendable, but for different reasons. Though Dessay’s characterisation of Violetta was thoughtful, it compared unfavourably with that of Anna Netrebko, who was theatrically gripping on the first night of the Royal Opera’s current production. However, I felt that Dessay attacked the notes with more conviction than her counterpart, and maintained a smoother Verdian line, even in the sometimes awkwardly delivered runs of Sempre libera. The second of two encores, Spargi d’amaro from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, found Dessay in superb voice, sometimes harsh-sounding, but always imaginatively deployed. No wonder the singer received such ovations for her recent Lucia at the Met.
Conductor Evelino Pid accompanied the voice admirably, if we ignore the aforementioned problems of dynamics, the Preludes of La Traviata and Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux tightly played, nuanced and arresting for the array of string colours uncovered. Cherubini’s Symphony in D major was, conversely, somewhat lacking in character, the nicely proportioned score alertly played but lacking fire in the more Beethovenian orchestral eruptions.
However, the concert will be remembered for Dessay’s mixed performance: as Verdi would say, ” strano!”