The Price of a Star

Natalie Dessay

Natalie Dessay

Back in September, my husband called with the breaking news that Dr. V. B. was selling her Metropolitan Opera tickets and we had to let her know by tomorrow what we wanted. “I’ll get right on it,” I said, knowing the tickets would be snapped up if we dawdled. We were lucky enough to make Dr. V.B.’s call list last year. She has prime seats to a Saturday matinee subscription to the Met. It doesn’t matter that she lives in Philly: she will hold onto these prized tickets and perhaps one day bequeath them to her heirs. In the meantime, she attends the shows she wants and finds eager buyers for the rest.

Tom and I chose the March 27, 2010 production, even though we’d never heard of the opera nor its composer. (Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas. Was it a modern opera?) We were confident of a fantastic musical experience, however, because we trusted the power of the leading soprano, Natalie Dessay.

We’d lucked into seeing/hearing Dessay and her equally compelling co-star, Juan Diego Flores, last year, in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, a considerably more famous opera, of interest especially to me because Bellini was a great influence on Chopin. Hands down, it was one of the most unbelievable and memorable performances we had ever seen. How was it humanly possible for two people to sing, move, and act with the fireworks, precision, and emotional intensity of these two stars? Dessay especially had us on the edge of our seats – we wept for this lovely sleepwalker. Her enormous grief was our grief, her great joy our joy.

So when we heard a few weeks ago that Dessay had cancelled due to an unspecified injury, we almost thought about canceling ourselves. But we decided to give the stand-in Ophélie, who’d given an impressive profile on NPR, a fair shake, and hiked up to New York for the production.

Well…

There was nothing wrong with the production. The singing was professional and pleasing in tone, the acting (except for Jennifer Larmore’s fiery Gertrude) correct but restrained. Not taken away by the action on stage, we had a chance to appreciate the orchestra’s perfect intonation, the virtuosity of the wind solos, the sweet sound of the string section, under conductor Louis Langrée. I enjoyed sitting next to my husband for three hours, even when he dozed a bit.

Oh, but what we missed.

Walking toward the exit after the last curtain call, we chatted with a young woman and her attractive grandmother. The grandmother told us, “I’m a Dessay groupie. We fly everywhere to see her. We heard her in Santa Fe, we’ve been to Europe to hear her. The granddaughter said, “She’s neursasthenic. There’s something that gets into your own nervous system and soul when she sings.”

That’s what we, as audience members are hoping for at the Met. Natalie Dessay, who risks all, perhaps even her own health, has set the bar. Without singers who “get into your nervous system and soul,” people like Dr. V.B. won’t be holding onto her subscription like gold, people like my husband and me won’t be turning ourselves inside out to get there when offered the chance. The hawkers on the plaza at Lincoln Center shouting, “Only $25 for today’s show,” will, lamentably, do a brisker business.

I think a true star is worth any price.

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