Review: Natalie Dessay and Laurent Naouri’s Emirates Palace show a perfect blend of poetry and emotions
The French art song, or mélodie, makes a strange beast to tame. The form developed in the mid-19th century as a vehicle for serious composers to put the words of contemporary poets to music, often for a single voice and piano. Today we’re left a beguiling blend of studied craft and light entertainment; short, sharp musical vignettes overflowing with both passion and technique.
While best known as celebrities of the opera world, it’s clearly a form dear to French singers Natalie Dessay and Laurent Naouri, who presented a lovingly curated programme of personal picks and familiar favourites at Emirates Palace on Sunday, opening the main performance programme of this year’s Abu Dhabi Festival.
Backed sublimely by celebrated pianist Maciej Pikulski, the recital opened with a large section devoted to the works of Gabriel Fauré, one of the form’s most prolific champions. Flitting between solos and duets, Dessay shone on classic ballad Clair de Lune, based on a Verlaine text, and revelled in the drama of Après un Rêve. Reunited onstage, there was a sumptuous romance to duet Pleurs D’or.
“Most of these songs are about one thing — the same thing most songs in the world are about,” said Naouri, “love”.
Indeed, an ill-prepared concert goer might never have clocked that the two singers have been husband and wife for two decades, before a fleeting kiss on the cheek, mid-set.
Things continued with the works of Henri Duparc, a name renowned for the mélodie, despite the fact he “went crazy” and burnt 80 per cent of his work. Duparc’s frenzied style offered Naouri a chance to shine, with his theatrical reading of the haunted Soupir the most-applauded solo all evening, while duet La Fuite, a conversation between two young lovers eloping to the desert, offered a fitting close to the first half.
The best was yet to come. Recognised as the last great mélodie composer, Francis Poulenc brought the form, perhaps reluctantly, into the 20th century, as represented by two gripping song cycles here. The war-scared words of Apollinaire found a sympathetic home in the seven-song Calligrammes, breathtakingly rendered by Naouri; Dessay looked on the verge of tears at the close of her own showcase Fiançailles Pour Rire, based on six poems by Louise de Vilmorin.
As the evening closed with three more crowd-pleasing duets, from Léo Delibes and Charles-Marie Widor, one was left greedily wanting to take these performances home. Despite debuting back in 2014, there has been no recorded release documenting this duet project — a grave shame given the sympathy, insight and flair these singers bring the material.
• The Abu Dhabi Festival continues until April 26, for details go to www.abudhabifestival.ae
Updated: April 11, 2016 04:00 AM