Lucia di Lammermoor - Dessay returns, Calleja triumphs

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
March 12, 2011
Metropolitan Opera
Natalie Dessay, Joseph Calleja, Stephen Gaertner, Patrick Summers, cond.

There are certain singers I've been lucky enough, in my rather short life as an operaphile, to be able to see develop over a fairly long period of time. One of those singers is Natalie Dessay. I first saw her as Zerbinetta in 2003, and was fairly blown away by this tiny dynamo. The next time I saw Dessay, it was five years later in Fille du Regiment. Even though Dessay was charming in the title role, I couldn't help but notice that her voice had shrunk, and the timbre had become hard, especially in the upper register. The singer who used to throw high G's in alt just for fun could barely manage a clean run above the staff. Perhaps a low-point in Dessay's career was the ill-fated production of La Sonnambula. She was blamed in the press for insisting on the extremely silly production, and for her by-then irritating frenetic, bug-eyed acting. Even if you had closed your eyes during that production, you would have heard a soprano in vocal distress. In the gentle, sweet role of Amina, Dessay often sounded harsh, shrill, and squeaky, and a painful contrast to her vocally ultra-secure and suave co-star, Juan Diego Florez. Top notes were screamed approximations, and she also seemed at times unable to sustain a musical line in legato, which is fatal to Bellini's beautiful but mercilessly exposed music. She was critically panned.

To hear the screaming and squeaking through "Ah non credea" and "Ah non giunge":

Dessay after the 2009 Sonnambulas canceled all her Met appearances of Hamlet last season, and made some more cancellations elsewhere. She seemed to be resting/retraining her voice. So her return to Lucia di Lammermoor, in a production designed for her four years ago, had the feel of a "comeback." In fact, on parterre (still the best opera blog there is, period), there had been speculation that Dessay might cancel all her Lucias, along with some snooty opening night comments. There was also a surprisingly harsh review from the New York Times. But my friend strongly urged me to see revival myself, and I did not regret it, because it turned out to be, all in all, one of the best nights I've had in the Met this season.

Was Dessay's voice anything like what it had been in 2003? Well, no. Dessay's voice was never big, but it once had a very bright, metallic ping to it that gave it a brilliant sheen, especially above the staff. That bright, pingy quality is all but gone now, as Dessay seems to be concentrated in preserving what opera lovers call the "middle" of her voice -- the notes between the staff, where most of the music in bel canto lies. I don't know how she's done it, but at least in the middle voice she's gotten the piquant, melancholy timbre back, and she sounds considerably softer and sweeter than she did two years ago. Her voice has lost quite a bit in volume and range, but it doesn't feel as if she's just forcing her voice to hit or miss notes anymore, as she did in Fille or Sonnambula. There are flaws -- sometimes phrases are snatched or cut off, a breathiness creeps in some of her runs, and top notes are forced out at will, in this very hard, straight tone that lacks the diamond-like brilliance her upper register once had. Trills are hit-or-miss. But the important thing is that Dessay seems to have thought about what she can do, and what she can't, and is determined to make the most out of her what she has left in the bank. The timbre has a sad, plaintive, little-girl sound that is quite haunting. Dessay can also do something many singers with far larger voices can't -- her voice has the ability to echo throughout the auditorium, in a bell-like and spooky way. What starts out as a small note will sort of bounce around the auditorium and by the time it hits your seat it's as if she's singing right next to you. If one feels that she is using her vocal resources very carefully, at least one can admire the taste and intelligence with which she uses those resources.

Along with this new, reworked voice, Dessay approaches her operatic roles with a new-found introspection. Gone is the bug-eyed, frenetic, hyperactivity and tendency to play everything for cheap laughs that by La Sonnambula had become an annoying mannerism. In its place is a reserved, small-scaled, but affecting approach. When Dessay walked onstage to her harp accompaniment before launching into "Regnava nel silenzio," her tiny stature and unassuming demeanor made her look like a conservatory student, rather than an experienced veteran who's been singing onstage for about 20 years. Dessay is a shrewd stage animal though, and she made her new approach fit the role dramatically. Dessay's Lucia is shy, withdrawn girl from the start, and it fits very well with Mary Zimmerman's uber-Victorian production, in which a ghost literally falls into a fountain when Lucia sings, "Colpia la fonte un pallido/ragio di tetra luna." When this Lucia embraced her Edgardo, it had really had the feel of a girl who's fallen in love for the first time, and is perhaps even a bit intimidated by her lover's passion. I know some people will go to the Lucia and expect to see Dessay tearing up the stage, and be disappointed with "new Natalie." But as someone who followed saw Dessay through those awful Sonnambulas, I was happy to see a singer make such a nice comeback.

In the famous Mad Scene, Dessay continued with this more reserved interpretation. Dessay deployed the same stage business as Damrau and Anna Netrebko (two other Lucias I saw in this production) during both "Il dulce suono" and "Spargi d'amaro pianto." But Netrebko and Damrau are very different singers -- both of them have secure, large, bell-like tones and a confident, even boldly sexual demeanor. It was illuminating to see the same blocking on the singer this production had been designed for -- Dessay wandered around the stage in her bloody gown, and she sang "Ardon gli incensi" lying on the prompter's box, and she ripped up her veil. She also did the scream. But what I remember most is the stillness of her performance, as well as the spooky echo effect of her voice. She used her large, saucer-like eyes and girlish appearance to great effect, but seemed to be focused on producing sound, rather than completing all the stage business. As a result, the Mad Scene didn't seem like "Mad Scene," but rather an internal dialogue. If her singing lacked Joan Sutherland's dazzling accuracy or Callas's grand tragedienne sweep, it was still very affecting. Dessay even dispensed with the by-now traditional flute obligato, and sang the cadenza a cappela. I'm not sure how much longer Dessay can keep the coloratura roles in her repertoire, but I am glad that a singer I had pretty much written off two years ago has returned from the brink, so to speak.

Here are videos I found of Dessay's Mad Scene from four years ago, and it will be interesting to compare them to the HD transmission next Saturday:

If Dessay's voice was carefully husbanded and doled out the entire evening, Joseph Calleja as Edgardo had a very different sort of triumph. I've heard Calleja over the radio, but last time it was the first time I heard him in the house. There are certain singers where it's impossible to talk of them without raving about being floored waves of sheer sound. Usually, people will say about those singers, "If you didn't hear them live, you didn't hear them, period." In the past, people spoke that way about Nellie Melba, Kirsten Flagstad, Renata Tebaldi, Franco Corelli. Nowadays, they talk of Anna Netrebko that way. To that list of singers, I'd add Joseph Calleja. His voice is like how a tenor sounds in one's dreams, but rarely does in reality -- a bright, warm, ringing voice, with the honeyed sweetness of Gigli. His tight but controlled vibrato reminds me of Bjoerling. He even looks a bit like Pavarotti before the waistline explosion. The role of Edgardo is a deeper, richer role than the Duke (Calleja's most frequently sung role at the Met), and its high tessitura holds no terrors for him. He is one of the few tenors to take both "Tombe degli avi miei" and "Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali" at score pitch. The radio gives really no idea of the impact of Calleja's voice on the ears -- this is a big, versatile lyric tenor voice. Calleja isn't just sonic overload though -- his phrasing is musical and stylish, with the kind of old-fashioned deployment of rubato and portamento that a lot of tenors eschew today. Calleja is tall and imposing onstage as well, and when he wrapped the tiny Dessay in a big bear hug, I sighed with happiness, not just at the golden sound, but at how Calleja and Dessay both used their voices for dramatic effect -- a shy, reserved girl from an unhappy family has found much-needed security in a strong authority figure. "Verrano a te" became not just a love duet, but a snapshot of a very realistic courtship. Calleja dominated "Chi mi frena" as his voice sailed above the ensemble. The best news? Calleja is only 32, and I hope his best years are still ahead of him.

I looked on youtube and could find surprisingly few clips of Calleja that I thought captured what he actually sounds like in the theater. I did find this though:

And this:

In this production Lucia's brother is more than a cardboard villain. His relationship with his sister is creepy, with a weird, implied incestuous vibe. Stage directions call for them to embrace lovingly, only for Enrico to resort to physical abuse the next moment. Stephen Gaertner has the kind of dry, efficient lyric baritone that has become so commonplace onstage today. These voices, in order to sound more imposing, do what I call "dark and bark." They artificially darken the sound, and bark the notes, and it's all very depressing, the lack of good baritones. I would have liked to see Ludovic Tezier, who is singing the rest of the run. But as Raimondo, Kwangchul Youn was a pleasure, with a nice, mellifluous, unforced bass. And Matthew Plenk in the tiny role of Arturo still sang with a winning sweetness of sound. I was very disappointed in how brass and ugly Patrick Summers made Salome sound, but in bel canto operas, he knew how to support his singers. He was vocally extremely sensitive to Dessay, at times cutting down the orchestra to the barest minimum, in order to avoid drowning out his soprano.

Mary Zimmerman's production has moved the story to the late 19th century. It seems as if Zimmerman has read Jane Eyre too many times, and has made Lucia di Lammermoor a Victorian gothic romance. Some of the quirks of the production are well-known -- the ghost that accompanies Lucia around the garden during her cavatina, the sextet being framed by a wedding photographer, with the lens snapping at the climactic note, Edgardo being stabbed by the ghost of Lucia in the final scene. The production is very literal in its approach -- does the audience really need to see a silent ghost accompany Lucia? But I feel as if the production is a good introduction to the opera, and succeeds in making the often rarefied tastes of bel canto operas (where opera lovers have a tendency to analyze whether every trill was perfectly articulated) accessible and easy to understand. The Scottish countryside scenes look like the sets of a Wuthering Heights movie, and the Mad Scene is well-staged, with a grand diva exit of Lucia fainting and being carried up the stairs right after she hits the Eb in "Spargi d'amaro pianto." Last night the men carrying Dessay stopped in the middle of the staircase to allow her to soak in some applause.

The audience was very enthusiastic with ovations throughout the evening. A vocally troubled diva made her comeback, and a tenor went from "promising" to a real star. It's what opera is all about.


  1. As a novice opera goer who was at Saturday night's performance, I was thrilled from the first note through the last ovation. Calleja was magnificent--just the type of tenor voice I love to hear and he does resemble a young Pavarotti. Dessay was believable as the young, vulnerable girl and sang the role beautifully.

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