A thrilling afternoon at Carnegie Hall

Berg, Rachmaninoff, Glière, Ravel, Delibes, Massenet, R. Strauss : Natalie Dessay (soprano), Fabio Luisi (conductor), MET Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 15.5.2011 (BH)

Berg : Lulu Suite (1934)

Rachmaninoff : Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 (1912)

Glière : Andante from Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra, Op. 82 (1943)

Ravel : Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera (1907)

Delibes : “Tu m’as donné le plus doux rêve,” from Lakmé (1883)

Massenet : “Je marche sur tous les chemins…Obéissons quand leur voix appelle,” from Manon (1883)

R. Strauss : Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888-1889)

With James Levine forced to cancel this final MET Orchestra concert of the season, Fabio Luisi stepped in and with only one major change – substituting Richard Strauss for Debussy’s Images – led a triumphant afternoon at Carnegie Hall with soprano Natalie Dessay. In the opening, Berg’s Lulu Suite, Luisi took tempi slightly slower than when he conducted the complete opera at the Met in 2010, and coaxing almost impossibly lush textures from the ensemble. Even agitated moments had luster. Dessay seemed totally inside the role, adding a certain vulnerability to the character’s nonchalance about the human debris she leaves behind. Sterling contributions from the orchestra’s saxophone were just a part of the many instrumental delights.

Dessay continued with Rachmaninoff’s popular Vocalise, with the singer effortlessly floating above the gentle orchestration, and Glière’s florid middle movement from his Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra. A third ode to wordlessness – Ravel’s Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera – appeared after intermission, with Dessay again accurate and ravishing. A shimmering “Tu m’as donné le plus doux rêve,” from Delibes’s Lakmé was followed by “Je marche sur tous les chemins…Obéissons quand leur voix appelle,” from Manon. In the latter, Dessay’s winsomeness contrasted nicely with an orchestra seemingly unleashed after being held a bit in check. A false ending produced a smattering of applause, with Dessay mischievously wagging her finger (in tempo) before finishing the song to laughter and cheers. As an encore, she tossed off one of her signatures, the perky “Il faut partir” from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment.

I confess that I walked into the hall slightly weary of hearing Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, seemingly on every programmer’s mind, but that fatigue quickly evaporated when Luisi and the orchestra began with a huge surge of adrenaline. The ensemble, finally allowed to explode, created torrents of sound – with particularly superb contributions from the oboe, horns and trombones – all of which Luisi shaped with confidence and elegance. Just when you think you’re tired of a great work overplayed, along comes a thrilling version like this one to persuade you otherwise.

Bruce Hodges