By ZACHARY WOOLFE
I didn’t spot Renée Fleming at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday. But she would have been heartened by Natalie Dessay’s recital. Here was a beloved soprano, like Ms. Fleming — and who, like Ms. Fleming, is now shifting from the opera to the concert stage — who still sounded recognizably herself yet was still challenging herself, and who was still deliriously received by her fans.
Ms. Fleming, 58, and Ms. Dessay, 52, faced the same problem over the past decade or so. Their voices didn’t much darken or deepen in their 40s, leaving them basically stranded in the ingénue roles they’d been singing since they were young. This was a particular frustration for Ms. Dessay, whose specialty was cute, spunky girls whose vocal lines exploded into stratospheric coloratura, the likes of Zerbinetta in Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.”
Even if your voice holds up, you seem increasingly silly playing Zerbinetta as a 50- or 60-year-old — especially if, like Ms. Dessay, you place more than the usual operatic emphasis on your theatrical bona fides. “It’s not that I’m leaving opera,” she told the newspaper Le Figaro in 2013, during her final run as Massenet’s Manon. “It’s that opera is leaving me.”
When opera leaves you, what’s left? For Ms. Dessay, it has been tours with the French pop and film composer Michel Legrand and some straight theater.
Musicals, too. In 2014, she was Madame Emery in a semi-staged version of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and has played the obsessive Fosca in Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion.” (Ms. Fleming will follow that lead, appearing next season in a Broadway production of “Carousel.”) In “Pictures of America,” a recording released last year, Ms. Dessay attempted a silky Streisand-style float in standards like “On a Clear Day” and “Send in the Clowns.”
But she hasn’t abandoned classical music: A new album of Schubert songs features intriguingly if unremittingly stark interpretations. She made a better impression in some of those songs at Carnegie, with full-bodied collaboration from the pianist Philippe Cassard. Live, the vulnerable yet indomitable persona Ms. Dessay likes to present — that of a victim giving testimony — rounds into a complete, often riveting performance a voice that, when recorded, can come off chilly and charmless.
So this was “Gretchen am Spinnrade” as despairing cry, the “Lied der Mignon” as haunted litany. In “Die Junge Nonne,” her whitened tone in the line “Finster die nacht wie das grab” (“The night is as dark as the grave”) conjured a whole world of fear.
The intensity rarely lifted: an admirable consistency of mood, though a consistency achieved at the expense of possibilities for variety. There wasn’t much individuality in each of Pfitzner’s eight rarely done “Alte Weisen” songs, depictions of women from youth to old age. Bizet’s “Adieux de l’Hôtesse Arabe” felt drab, without a range of vocal colors, and the “Jewel Song,” from Gounod’s “Faust,” radiated clenched-teeth determination rather than sparkle.
Much of Ms. Dessay’s voice remains almost eerily preserved — clean, pointed, penetrating. Called upon for soft, hovering high notes, the decades melted away. But the touch of nasality, of wiry acid, that was always around the edges of her instrument has spread: She is a passionate artist who casts a memorable spell, but she is not always pure pleasure to listen to.
While I could do without some of her trying-too-hard touches — the wide-eyed peering, the self-consciously sensual sinuous arm motions — she manages to pull off some potentially campy ideas. She left the stage so Mr. Cassard could play a couple of Debussy solos, and I was ready to roll my eyes as she floated back on like a sleepwalker as he finished the final bars of “Ondine” and began, without pause, the opening of Debussy’s song “Regret.” But her commitment made the moment persuasive.
And in the death aria from Delibes’s “Lakmé,” her fourth and final encore, she produced what I can only describe as a voice within her voice, faint yet true, emerging as if across time and space.