I love Natalie Dessay to pieces but I'll have to concede that she's not for all markets. I thought he Daughter of the Regiment with Juan Diego Flórez was one of the funniest and most charming three hours I've ever idled away. I think she just nails the quiet dignity of Amina in La Sonnambula (though I didn't much like the way she had to walk down that skinny little gangway in Vienna). I thought she was more out of place in Lucia di Lammermoor where she somehow couldn't cut the clowning, even in a tragedy.
Today for the first time as Violetta in the Met HD La Traviata, I saw her display the kind of vulnerability and pathos that is required of so many operatic heroines, and that she rarely achieves. The sad irony was that the subject was not her character but herself--Natalie,six days short of her 47th birthday., just coming back from a cold, turned in the most disappointing performance I've ever seen her provide. And she knew it: in an intermission interview with Deborah Voigt, she apologized for missing a high note (she missed several). Her Alfredo, Matthew Polenzani, more or less took over. At first I thought he was just hogging the mike but Mrs. Buce says--and I think she is right--no, he was doing her a favor. At the encore, her bow came accompanied with an aspect little short of desolation.
Say this for Natalie: it wasn't for lack of trying. Her voice seemed strained and she seemed weak but you could tell that she had thought out every line and was delivering the best she knew how. Say this also: almost everything else in the show seemed to conspire against her. The set--that austere wall of abstract modernism--is interesting, and it seems to work in a DVD performance that I saw a while back. But here it just seemed to turn everybody's voice to lead. And Polenzani--nice man, Polenzani, generous and a trouper, but he wasn't able to relate to her nor she to him. And Dmitri Hvorostovsky in my favorite role as old Germont--smooth and polished and utterly unmemorable. Talk about pathos and vulnerability--those are exactly the qualities that make Germont so interesting, as they undercut his persona of stiff pomposity. In a proper performance, you get the sense that Germont genuinely likes Violetta in spite of himself, and she him. Hvorostovsky doesn't seem much interested in anybody except himself.
Some people take delight in the disintegration of a great singer. Not me. As I say, I'm more or less nuts about Dessay and I want her to have a long and full and dazzling future career. Aside from last week's cold, I remember that she's had a couple of semi-recent bouts with vocal surgery. As she took her bow, I couldn't help but wonder whether this week was just a speed bump or a major inflection point. From the look of her, I'd say she was wondering, too.
Afterthought: Deborah Voigt. She did the intermission interview, giving herself a chance to hype her own performance as Brunhilde in Wagner's Ring. I've said before that I don't get Wagner and I won't be seeing her in the Ring. But that voice--even as she speaks, it's like a fine Cabernet. Indeed hers might have been the best performance of the afternoon.