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Dessay makes Violetta debut in Santa Fe Traviata

Santa Fe
The Santa Fe Opera House
07/03/2009 -  & July 8, 11, 17, 24, August 4, 11*, 17, 22, 26, 29
Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata
Natalie Dessay (Violetta Valéry), Saimir Pirgu (Alfredo Germont), Laurent Naouri (Giorgio Germont), Emily Fons (Flora Bervoix), Tom Corbeil (Marquis d’Obigny), Keith Jameson (Gastone), Wayne Tigges (Baron Douphol), Harold Wilson (Doctor Grenvil), Jennifer Jakob (Annina), Jorge Prego (Giuseppe), Lucas Harbour (a messenger), David Govertsen (Flora’s servant)
Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Susanne Sheston (chorus master), Frédéric Chaslin (conductor)
Laurent Pelly (director/costume designer), Chantal Thomas (set designer), Duane Schuler (lighting designer)

S. Pirgu & N. Dessay (© Ken Howard)

On a cool night in northern New Mexico, the sold-out audience for Laurent Pelly’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata buzzed in anticipation of Natalie Dessay’s high profile role debut as Violetta. The French soprano did her best not to disappoint.

The first sounds the Santa Fe Opera crowd heard from Dessay’s mouth, however, were two gleeful screams upon her entrance into the first act party. The purpose of the outbursts was unclear, but they immediately identified her on stage (if her hot pink hair had not done so already). Most of the first scene sat too low for Dessay’s voice. The brindisi showed her in better shape, and her voice blended well with the Alfredo of Saimir Pirgu. The night began in earnest for the soprano during “Un dì, felice” when she demonstrated that she can indeed sing Verdi’s heavier coloratura. Dessay dispatched of the hefty lines with ease and surprising vocal weight, showing no signs of nerve or tension as she jumped around the stage in her trademark flighty manner. After the party-goers left Dessay alone on stage, the audience seemed to straighten up for the soprano’s first big test. During “Ah, fors’ è lui,” Dessay showed a tendency to attack almost all higher phrases with a pianissimo turning into a crescendo. While not inappropriate for the aria, this propensity popped up other times throughout the rest of the opera as if she were not totally sure of herself. “Sempre libera” exposed the soprano’s voice in an unpleasant light: by this time, her mechanism was tired and it showed. The final coloratura sections of the cabaletta were strained, unclear, and lagged behind the only moderately paced orchestra of conductor Frédéric Chaslin.

During the second act, Dessay gave a gut-wrenching theatrical performance in her duet with Germont. She navigated the scene admirably, displaying her penetrating delicate voice when necessary and floating her upper register more comfortably than in the first act. Dessay’s “Amami, Alfredo” wasn’t as moving as it could have been, but the soprano blended well during the ensemble that ended the act and brought a believable pathos to Violetta’s illness. Act three, however, brought out the best in Dessay’s portrayal of the doomed courtesan. Lying motionless on her back in bed with pure white sheets pulled up to her neck, Dessay sang a gut-wrenching “Addio del passato,” showing seamless legato and excellent control of her voice at all dynamics. The fatigue she showed during “Sempre libera” was gone and the toned down version of her portrayal suited her well. Alone in the dark, Dessay took over and simply sang. She squeezed an inimitable and endless crescendo from the final phrase, bringing the house down for several minutes. The soprano was fragile in “Parigi, o cara,” and drew much of the Santa Fe audience to tears in the final moments of the opera. Dessay has the dramatic side of Violetta down, but vocally she needs some work and most of all, more time; she knows this in the way she cautiously approaches many sections of the role. With a little more polish and stamina at the end of the first act, Violetta could become a trademark for her. Santa Fe was not disappointed, giving the post-performance Dessay a warm ovation.

Tenor Saimir Pirgu gave a strong if uneven assumption of Alfredo. The Albanian’s unique voice blends a light, leggiero like natural tone with a strong baritonal edge. Live, the result is a sound that excites at times and disappoints at others. Pirgu sang well but without much excitement during the first act. Later, he showed off high quality lyricism during “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” but failed to produce a secure C at the end of the cabaletta. During the gambling scene (which followed intermission in this production), the tenor shouted his way through the first few minutes but then settled into a more supported sound, navigating the higher tessitura with ease and even showing some blossom and power in his voice during the ensemble. Although the final act belonged to Dessay, Pirgu dashingly picked her up and sat her in his lap during “Parigi, o cara.” Pirgu seemed to have saved his best for last as he showed no reservations in climbing the scale during the long phrases of the duet. Ultimately, the tenor acquitted himself well despite the inconsistencies, giving the crowd a solid if not extraordinary Alfredo.

The most consistent performance of the night came without question from Dessay’s real-life husband, Laurent Naouri. A regular at Santa Fe, the French baritone did the seemingly impossible when he stole the crowd’s attention away from Dessay in the second act with an ample voice that boasted flexibility up through the top of his range and a warmth throughout the middle. The Violetta-Germont scene showed Naouri at his best. As he dealt with the diminutive Dessay, this Germont didn’t bellow or bluster to get his way, but instead used lush, warm tones to create the aura of a weakened man in utter desperation. His elegant “Di Provenza” was one of the highlights of the night, as Naouri pleaded with his son using careful dimuendi at the end of nearly every phrase. The Santa Fe audience rewarded the baritone with the largest ovation of the evening.

Conductor Frédéric Chaslin kept things moving at a moderate pace throughout the evening and paid careful attention to his singers. His involved and physical manner seemed to draw the best out of the orchestra, particularly during the frequent pizzicato sections where Chaslin seemed as if he were plucking with the strings. None of the smaller parts stood out apart from Wayne Tigges as Baron Douphol and Tom Corbeil as the Marquis d’Obigny, who both boomed their voices throughout the house in their respective small roles. The female chorus was quite underwhelming during all of the party scenes, singing in a very casual manner not at the standard of a house like Santa Fe.

Laurent Pelly’s production (a joint effort with the Teatro Regio di Torino) relies on a set comprised of stairways and boxes. There wasn’t much for the cast to do other than climb, stand upon, then jump down from said stairways and boxes, but in the end the sets didn’t prove too distracting. The costumes were mostly period designed. Pelly’s stage direction brought nothing new to the opera, however, and a funeral procession during the overture added nothing to the storyline. Similarly, Dessay’s Violetta was on stage and playfully flirted with Pirgu’s Alfredo during the tenor’s “De’ miei bollenti spiriti,” making his sudden anger even less believable. The low point of the director’s creativity came during the ensemble at the end of the second act, in which he instructed the chorus to sway back and forth to the time of the score.

The exquisite Germont of Laurent Naouri and the promising Alfredo of Saimir Pirgu almost stole the show from Dessay, but in the end it was her night to shine. At the end of the performance, Santa Fe’s audience roared again and again with approval for the smiling French soprano; this Traviata was hers, and she knew it.

The Santa Fe Opera

Paul Wooley



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