I had the great good fortune to see Natalie Dessay do Daughter of the Regiment a couple of years back, in what seemed at the time like a career-defining performance. In retrospect, I think it may have been az curse. It was a delight to see her in Daughter as she clowned, caterwauled and generally charmed her way across the stage, releasing her inner tomboy. But it turns out that tomboys once released are not easily put back. A few months after I saw her in Lucia di Lammermore, where she offered the oddest of opera spectacles an (almost) comic mad scene.
Last night as Violetta in Traviata at Santa Fe, the tomboy was back. She arrived in a carrot-top hairdo with a yelp. She spent the ballroom scene horsing around with her buddies in a manner that was fun to watch, but hardly Violetta. You got the sense that she didn't have a clue what her heroine was all about.
But perhaps surprisingly, a few minutes later "fors'è lui," she was wonderful: meditative, introspective, touched with pathos. Almost as much so a few minutes later in "sempre libera" she was almost as good, although this time, she could have used a bit more of her natural energy and tension (for a concert rendition, go here). I think the point may be that she is at her best alone. In the crowd, her natural self emerges, and a wonderful self it is, but not right for the role.
You could see the problem again in one of my favorite of all opera, her encounter with the elder Germond, when he tells her "don't you understand, sweetie, I have a daughter with a reputation to protect and you are a mere trollope." Anthony Michaels-Moore played papa with great poise and dignity and, perhaps out of character for Germonds, he actually inspired a good deal of sympathy. Here I think the point is that for the scene to work as planned, you need a Violetta who is vulnerable and pathetic: Dessay, god bless her, is neither of the above.
I suspect Dessay wasn't helped in any of this by her director, Laurent Pelly, who is a wonderfully inventive talent, but who certainly isn't going to be remembered for delicacy or restraint. She's still wonderful and so is he--I'd go along way to see either. But Traviata didn't show her at best advantage, and I'm looking forward to another day on which there may be more restraint.