Pictures of America: Natalie Dessay (Sony Classical)
★★ (out of five)
News of a Natalie Dessay release always stirs me to a fevered expectation. The French soprano, now retired from the opera stage, has an extraordinary ability to find character between the lines of a song, even one that is overly familiar or resistant to shades of interpretation. Why, she once won me over to choose a Debussy set as my album of the year…
So my curiosity was well and truly piqued when Ms. Dessay announced an album of American songs based on her reaction to well-known American paintings by Edward Hopper. What would Natalie Dessay find in, for instance, “There’s no Business Like Showbusiness” that others have not found before?
The answer, it becomes swiftly apparent is, not much. In a pseudo-cabaret ambience, Ms. Dessay shifts down to alto and sometimes to Sprechgesang as she croons or whispers through the songbook without ever quite convincing me that this is, in any way, necessary. If Lisa Minelli does it better, why compete? Neither Frank Sinatra nor Judy Collins would feel challenged by her reading of Send in the Clowns, let alone Bryn Terfel or Angela Lansbury. On a Clear Day is marginally more successful, misted by Parisian ambiguity.
Elsewhere, tempi are languid, rhythms are slack, and pitch is occasionally off. The second disc amounts to a recitation of French texts by Ms. Dessay, accompanied wisps of music by Graciane Finzi, inflected by Barber’s Adagio. Ms. Dessay reads well. If these were bedtime stories, I would not fall asleep. The other saving grace of this indulgent compilation is the playing of the Paris Mozart Orchestra, clearly an ensemble of virtuosos, conducted by the veteran Claire Gibault.
This is the first fruit of the artist’s new contract with Sony, following a close personal and creative friendship with EMI/Warner and its sensitive chief, Alain Lanceron. It would not surprise me to learn that Lanceron’s lack of enthusiasm for this odd project was the cause of their separation.