The vocal fortunes of the French soprano Natalie Dessay have waxed and waned in recent years, and this star of several Met productions since her 1994 debut is now reportedly taking a sabbatical from the opera stage. She is however at the same time stepping up her work in recital, and a relatively large crowd turned out Saturday night at Jordan Hall to hear her local recital debut, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.
On the opera stage Dessay, who first trained as an actress, has won praise not just for her singing but for the dramatic instincts that inform every role she takes on. On Saturday she brought a bit of operatic theatricality with her, requesting that the house lights be kept low, and throwing herself physically into each song with a gallery of gestures and poses, arms almost constantly in motion.
The evening started somewhat slowly, with four songs of Clara Schumann and three of Brahms. Dessay has an elegantly silvery and remarkably weightless soprano, but on Saturday she seemed less stylistically at home in this world of German lieder. At times her physical acting seemed to be taking the place of a larger grappling with the subtle interpenetration of text and music, and during the Brahms selections in particular her singing was technically less assured than one might have expected.
Natalie Dessay, soprano
The first half also contained three Strauss songs, which were more persuasive, but Dessay was most palpably in her element in a pair of Duparc songs: his beloved setting of Baudelaire’s “L’invitation au Voyage,” and “Extase,” which she rendered with a quietly glowing tone and a becalmed sense of focus.
The second half fared better, with delightfully idiomatic and graceful performances of songs by Fauré, including “En Sourdine,” here the loveliest of the set, and Poulenc’s “Fiancailles pour rire,” which benefited most from her theatrical gifts. After a concluding pair of songs by Debussy, Saturday’s crowd gave the soprano an opera star’s ovation. She responded with three encores, including an aria from Delibes’s “Lakmé” and Rachmaninoff’s “Zdes’ Khorosho,” from his Romances (Op. 21), the latter sung with surpassing gentleness and warmth.
Throughout the night, Philippe Cassard was a nimble and sensitive partner at the piano.