Natalie Dessay's Mad Scenes

Saturday, February 06, 2010

With Valentine's Day around the corner, what better way to pay tribute to the limits of relationship sanity than Natalie Dessay's collection of Mad Scenes. It's this week's Full Rotation.

Few scenes in all of opera are more famous than the "mad scene" in Donizetti's 1835 masterwork Lucia Di Lammemoor. Having murdered the man she was forced to marry, the mentally unhinged heroine appears with dagger in hand and, for the better part of 15 minutes, the heroine wanders around the stage, delivering outbursts of bel canto bravura in scales, runs and elaborate ornamentation. No contemporary singer does Lucia better than Natalie Dessay, the French soprano who opened the Metropolitan Opera season two years ago in this role. In this compilation, she sings the mad scene twice, once in Italian and the other in the French version. Both versions are fascinating in their own right, with the French being less ornamented and more severe.

Of course, Lucia's breakdown is but one of many enduring, even iconic mad scenes in opera, particularly found in the bel canto period of the 19th century. Dessay gives a fantastic performance of Elvira, the emotionally volatile bride-to-be in Belini's I Puritani. Unlike Lucia, Elvira isn't driven to kill anyone, she eventually recovers from her bout of madness and the opera ends happily. More tragic in its outcome is the mad scene of Ophélie in Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet, which, of course ends in suicide. The most unusual excerpt here is a dazzling take on Bernstein's "Glitter and Be Gay" from Candide. The aria expresses a different kind of madness and yet Dessay's riotous performance is spectacularly over the top.

Mad Scenes
Natalie Dessay, soprano, (Virgin Classics)
Available for purchase at Arkivmusic.com

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