I know I said I’d used up my life’s allotment of performances of Donizetti’s bonbon, but Dessay and Florez at the Met was too tempting to pass up. Laurent Pelly’s production moves the opera’s time to that of World War I. But when you set this opera is irrelevant. It succeeds or fails with its title character. Natalie Dessay was as bouncy as a spaldeen. She looked like a combination of Fanny Brice and Edith Piaf on steroids and happy pills. She took over the stage and brought this tired old mish mash to life. Vocally and histrionically she was perfect; forget about a mini-crack. She has a gift for comedy that’s unmatched by any soprano I can think of. When she wasn’t on stage the piece sagged to its proper level – sub par Donizetti, which is still better than almost anyone else. Her performance was one of the rare instances when an artist carries a work far beyond its usual potential. Wonderful. If you were just listening to Dessay’s performance you missed 90% of its impact. She’s truly a singing actress.
There’s a tenor in this opera. Dessay’s star power might have eclipsed a usual tenor, but the estimable Juan Diego Florez managed to be noticed. The current King of the Tenorinos (John Osborn is just as good, but doesn’t have as good a press agent), Florez tossed out the barrel of high Cs at the end of “Pour mon âme” with ostentatious ease. He has repeatedly said that the second act aria, “Pour me rapprocher de Marie” is the harder of the two. And for him it obviously is. Runs and high notes show off his bright and glinty voice. Its hard edge makes singing a long line a little more difficult. He did his best with the second aria, but it was clear he was working hard to make it effective. Osborn did more with the number. Tito Schipa who would have omitted all the high notes (in both acts) would have been perfect for this aria.
Now about the encore of Tonio’s first aria. There wasn’t one. Mr Gelb apparently couldn’t bring himself to press the encore button that travels with him wherever he goes like the nuclear football that follows the President of the US wherever he goes. Florez, who couldn’t have sung the aria any better at the prima than he did on Saturday, was obviously ready for a second launch, but Mission Control refused permission. (I love mixing all these metaphors and similes.) Since everyone was expecting an encore its absence was a real downer. Mr Gelb must have considered the cheering that followed Florez’s performance insufficiently rabid.
The rest of the cast did not get in the way which is all that is required of them. Allessandro Corbelli was appropriately jolly as Sulpice. Felicity Palmer was appropriately stuffy as the Marquise Of Berkenfield. And Marian Seldes was appropriately tottering as the Duchess of Krakenthorp. I wonder if Krakenthorp has some extra meaning in French. Marco Amiliato conducted appropriately.
There were sets and costumes, but if you turned Mme Dessay loose on an empty stage with just a few props the performance would be just as successful as it was with sets and costumes. When she leaves this production there will be little reason to continue it.