Sometimes, personal taste can come in the way of one's enjoyment of a performer, regardless of his or her assets. It's the old story of how some people loathe Maria Callas' performances while others idolise her.
Such is the case with me and the French soprano Natalie Dessay, who is in demand the world over and regularly sells out both in concert and at the opera house but whose voice and approach to singing leave me totally cold. Last January, I was immune to her performance as Marie in the Royal Opera's production of La fille du régiment, for which she won huge plaudits from all the press, loud ovations from the audience and has just been nominated for an Olivier Award. Neither her curiously masculine characterisation nor her forced, thin, sometimes ill-tuned singing convinced me of her abilities for this staple of the bel canto repertoire.
And here we go again with Dessay's new disc of six full Italian opera arias. Having made her name in high soprano roles such as the Queen of the Night and undergone two operations on her voice, she seems to be slipping into the dramatic bel canto repertoire, which poses different demands. Perhaps she feels that her voice in its current condition – shorn of its bloom and ease at the top – is better suited to the dramatically potent lead roles in Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi than the purity of Mozart and the baroque. But for me, listening to parts of this disc is a dissatisfying and sometimes uncomfortable experience which suggests that Dessay's vocal resources are overstretched by such repertoire.
In my view, the first extract is the most disappointing. Dessay is soon to add the role of Violetta in La traviata to her repertoire, but on the evidence of this rendition of the first-act aria she should proceed with caution. What surprises me here is the unpersuasive interpretation: one gets little sense of what the piece is about. Violetta's psychological conflict is almost absent from the equation, because the focus of the performance is on whether Dessay can actually get through so taxing an aria for a voice as small as hers. I find this particularly in the tempo di mezzo, where the timing is unconventional and not entirely effective. There's no sense of drive from word to word, where there should be a gear change from the previous andante, and the rather plain delivery of the text robs us of the character's dilemma. Because Dessay's voice is often pushed and strained above the stave these days, the effort to create any tone at all for the parola scenica means that there is a very weak 'g' sound on 'gioia'. In the best renditions of the aria, this word is the crux of the argument; here it is almost completely lost. Added to vibrato-heavy, thin tone in 'Ah fors'è lui', several moments of pitching uncertainties, some contorted Italian pronunciation and a tendency to produce 'h' sounds in the coloratura passages, it makes the performance unconvincing. It doesn't help that Roberto Alagna – brought in as a luxury for Alfredo's off-stage lines – is placed so far forward on the recording, negating the feeling of reminiscence.
The other Verdi item on the disc is far more adequate, if still not special. Gilda's 'Caro nome' from Rigoletto is a more restrained piece that Dessay can negotiate with ease. It helps that the vocal line is more fragmented in the score, because what's lacking in the performance in general is a warm tone in long legato phrases. As Gilda, Dessay produces a brighter sound in the strongly marked staccato passages than she does in Violetta's coloratura passages, and more restraint also helps; she just seems a lot more in control of her instrument.
Bellini is a composer the soprano plainly has a great desire to sing at the moment: perhaps inspired by her idol Maria Callas, she's recently recorded La sonnambula and includes both Elvira's 'Qui la voce' from I puritani and Giulietta's 'Oh! quante volte' from I Capuleti e I Montecchi on this disc. The heavy vibrato is mercifully kept to a minimum in 'Qui la voce' and Dessay produces some lovely sounds, even if she doesn't quite have the nobility for the role. Matthew Rose and Franck Ferrari provide strongly-characterised support as Giorgio and Riccardo. Giulietta's aria with beautiful harp accompaniment also has its moments, though there are again instances of spread tone at exposed points and I find the tempo a little slow, leading to blandness.
Things are pushed again with the Donizetti items. Maria Stuarda's 'O nube' is a tall order for Dessay, even more so the cabaletta 'Nella pace del mesto riposo'. The former isn't quite controlled enough, with the voice sounding at the back of the throat rather than forward; the latter causes her to push again. Like Violetta's aria, this is simply too heavy for the soprano and too many of the words are lost. The biggest item on the CD is the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, performed with the ghostly glass harmonica accompaniment. Dessay's histrionic abilities are arresting at times here, even if the coloratura and pitching are again flawed in various places. For me, the problem is simply that her voice isn't big enough and therefore doesn't facilitate the range of expression needed for this tragic masterpiece.
As was the case with his recent recording of La sonnambula with Dessay, Evelino Pidò's conducting is ponderous, laboured and often gets slower during the course of a number. The Concerto Köln plays with some feeling for period style but ultimately misses the dramatic bite of the Verdi and Donizetti arias in particular.
Special editions of the CD contain a bonus DVD of Dessay performing the Mad Scene from the Met's production of Lucia last September. With warmer accompaniment from James Levine and the Met orchestra, plus a stark staging by Mary Zimmerman, there's inevitably more dramatic focus here than on the studio recordings on the CD. Dessay's voice is still over-stretched for my taste, but her fans will no doubt be enraptured by both CD and DVD.