Sunday, March 22, 2009

La Sonnambula

I attended another Metropolitan Opera HD movie showing yesterday, La Sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). The opera is acclaimed for its extraordinary melodies. All of the singers did an excellent job, but the coloratura soprano, Natalie Dessay, showed marvelous acting skills in addition to her vocal virtuosity. During the course of the Met's La Sonnambula, which uses the gimmick of pretending to be an opera company rehearsing a production of La Sonnambula, Dessay variously presents herself as a sophisticated professional, a spoiled diva, and a open-hearted young girl. She is believable in each of these transformations. Dessay's sweet tone and vocal agility are ideally suited for the bel canto style of early 19th century opera. She tosses off rapid-fire scales and cadenzas effortlessly.

From her official website biography:

"Born in Lyons, Natalie Dessay grew up in Bordeaux. She first dreamed of becoming a dancer, but later studied acting and singing at the Bordeaux Conservatoire. She progressed with extraordinary rapidity, completing five years’ worth of study in just one year and graduating with First Prize at the age of twenty. In 1989, after a brief period in the chorus of the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, she entered France’s first Concours des Voix nouvelles and won second prize. This led to further studies at the Paris Opéra and to her first major engagements as a soloist."

In an interview from 1998, she said that her singing ability was recognized when she was a budding actress. An acting role required her to sing and she began taking singing lessons with a private tutor as preparation. One can imagine the delight and surprise felt by this tutor upon hearing the wonderful voice of this feisty young dancer and actress. The account would make an interesting movie in itself. Dessay was immediately encouraged to study singing and evidently took to it with remarkable determination. (Creative people often follow career tangents and zigzags. Daniel Pinkwater, the famed writer of books for the young, studied as a painter and later as a dog trainer. My composer son is poised to become gainfully employed on the strength of his performing prowess with the electric bass guitar. Who knows what other abilities he may discover?)

Dessay's great final scene is as a sleepwalker in the grip of emotional anguish after being rejected by her fiance. In a brilliant bit of stagecraft, Dessay stands on a a four-foot wide section of the stage as it is pushed out cantilever fashion over the orchestra pit. The spotlight shines on this petite woman, alone in the darkness, quietly singing of her heartbreak. The audience is doubly moved, moved by pity for the young girl's sorrow and moved by fear that Dessay might possibly trip and tumble into the violin section. Fortunately, all ends happily.

Natalie Dessay will be singing in La Traviata at the Santa Fe Opera during July and August.