This collection features Natalie Dessay in five scenes of coloratura madness – or near-madness — by two Italian composers, two French composers, and one (satirising) American.
Soprano characters who go insane are quite a feature of 19th-century opera, providing composers with an opportunity to write virtuosic and often adventurous music to express the wanderings of the poor heroine’s mind.
Here, Dessay sings the French version of the Bride of Lammermoor’s famous post-nuptial scene. Donizetti’s heroine is driven to murder, but Elvira, the bride-to-be at the centre of Bellin’s I puritani, premiered in Paris in 1835, is no particular danger to anyone; her insanity is only temporary and the opera ends happily. Her mad scene, a more conventional operatic construction than Lucia’s, features one of Bellini’s loveliest fine-spun melodies. Nor is madness terminal in Meyerbeer’s Dinorah (1859), set in rural Brittany and notable for featuring a (silent) supporting role for a pet goat. The heroine’s delicious ‘Ombre légère’ is the opera’s greatest hit and here Dessay performs the extraordinary feat of singing a stratospheric A flat above top C. Far more tragic in its implications is the mad scene of Ophélie from Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet (1868), described by London’s Observer as “a fiendish set-piece which … Natalie Dessay carries off with wondrous aplomb”. Poor Ophelia strays through a number of contrasting sections before a vertiginous suicidal finale. Dessay has performed Ophélie in London, Barcelona (available on an EMI Classics DVD) and Toulouse; she returns to the role in Spring 2010 at the Metropolitan Opera.
Fast-forwarding nearly 100 years Dessay takes on Cunégonde in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, based on Voltaire’s satirical novel and first staged on Broadway in 1956. This is not quite a mad scene: it starts off with Cunégonde bemoaning her descent into vice, but she cheers up at thoughts of her life of luxury, her near-hysterical coloratura reflecting the bubbles in her champagne and the sparkle of her jewels. Recorded live at the EMI centenary concert at Glyndebourne, this performance was welcomed by Gramophone as an “hilarious performance, with Dessay dazzling in the lightest of coloratura”.