Natalie Dessay’s repertoire seems to be in a state of flux. Although she recently returned to Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met, her first Cleopatra perhaps suggests a realignment of priorities, away from the high-flying bel canto roles towards music of less wide-ranging compass, if no less demanding technically and musically. To coincide with Laurent Pelly’s new production at the palais garnier (which I saw on January 23), Virgin Classics released a solo album dedicated entirely to the Egyptian Queen’s arias from Giulio Cesare, seven of them from the score as performed at the King’s Theatre Haymarket in 1724, two of them beautiful arias discarded by Handel before the premiere and never before recorded on disc.
If the microphone catches traces of tonal wear and tear—Dessay is now in her mid 40s, a veteran for a Cleopatra debutante—she sounded in remarkably fresh voice on this occasion, despite a pre-curtain announcement that she was ‘souffrante’. She delivered teasingly sparkling accounts of the often-cut ‘Tutto puo donna vezzosa’ and ‘Non disperar’, and one the best-sung accounts of ‘Se pietà’ I have heard in the theatre since Valerie Masterson’s unforgettable performances for ENO in the 1970s and ’80s.
So the announcement at the beginning of Act 3 must have astonished the rest of the audience as much as it did me, despite the forewarning of indisposition: Dessay gracefully deferred to her cover, Jane Archibald, who was in any case scheduled to sing a couple of performances. I gather Dessay cancelled subsequent performances as well. One hopes that this is not a recurrence of the vocal troubles that blighted her career a few years back, for she has everything for Cleopatra. As ever she looked glamorous, with close-cropped hair and a slinky, slender figure. After such a beautiful ‘Se pietà’ it was sad to lose Dessay’s ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’, but Archibald sang it well, even if she lacked Dessay’s rapt phrasing.For this new production, Dessay had her favourite director, Laurent Pelly, but this proved one of his least compelling efforts. Setting the entire opera in what looked like the warehouse for the Cairo Museum—we are supposed to believe that the characters are artefacts come to life, and that the contemporary museum workforce are unaware of their presence—Pelly shackled himself to an idea that ran out of steam well before the end of the first act. In Act 2, the warehouse was suddenly transformed into the back room of an art dealer’s (with a huge portrait of Handel on sale), and in Act 3 a carpet bazaar. Of insights into the characters or genuinely new ideas about Handel’s masterpiece there were precious few. And, apart from Dessay, the principal casting had a distinctly B- and even C-list feel to it. Lawrence Zazzo’s stalwart Cesare sang well but without the allure of a Daniels, Scholl or Mehta, and the rest were decidedly under par for a Handel opera in Paris. Christophe Dumaux, whose Tolomeo is well known from the Glyndebourne production, is an elegant actor, but his voice sounded even less ingratiating at the Garnier than it had in East Sussex. The young American mezzo Isabel Leonard (touted as the new Susan Graham or Joyce DiDonato) acted but did not sing Sesto, and I think it would be unfair to name her last-minute substitute. The Armenian Varduhi Abrahamyan has a lovely alto sound but seemed prematurely cast as Cornelia, while Nathan Berg was in very poor voice as Achilla. Dominique Visse’s reedy haute-contre and ultra-camp shtick are now wearing very thin as Cleopatra’s eunuch, Nireno. As on Dessay’s Cleopatra disc, Emmanuelle Haïm conducted her period-instrument Orchestre du Concert d’Astrée with rather less vim and brio than I recall from her conducting of the Glyndebourne revival with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.