Ten years ago Natalie Dessay announced that she was quitting the opera stage, and the opera world went into shock at the news that one of its leading high sopranos could have the self-discipline to stop at something like the peak of her powers. There has been the odd recording and concert in the meantime, yet this programme, in the intimacy of Milton Court, had the feeling of a low-key comeback recital, slipped in under the radar.
With her regular pianist, Philippe Cassard, in skilfully sympathetic support, the programme, entitled Women’s Words, played to Dessay’s strengths. Moving almost like a dancer, she created a mood of intensity around the songs by Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler in the first half and the arias in the second – including Marguerite’s exuberant Jewel Song from Faust, and her encore from Lakmé, in which she made the tiniest thread of sound carry laser-like to the back of the auditorium. There was a slight but pervasive insecurity to her intonation that wasn’t there back when she was dashing off Donizetti at Covent Garden; but everything was persuasively expressive, a world apart from the painfully literal word-by-word translations in the surtitles above her.
It didn’t feel as though Dessay was consistently at ease, but still-got-it moments were sprinkled throughout: a high crescendo in one of Mahler’s songs that bloomed and then distilled into softness as the line descended, and a haunting, almost unaccompanied passage from Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, Dessay singing with her back to us but sending the tone out clear and true. The best trick came at the end of Poulenc’s La Dame de Monte-Carlo, a song that would suit her perfectly if she had a heftier lower range, but which she here made her own anyway: stepping away from the piano to the front, she held and held the penultimate high note as pure as a sine wave, before adding vibrato and rounding off with a perfectly controlled throwaway ending.
Dessay reportedly plans to step away from classical music altogether in 2025 – so this was not a comeback, really, but it was still rewarding.