Dessigate, an opinion

James InverneMon 11th January 2010

The latest soprano controversy

So Franco Zeffirelli has given feted soprano Daniella Dessì, a sometime Riccardo Muti protégée at La Scala, the shove from his production of La traviata. She was, he said, rather too plump and too old for Violetta and he offered her Alice Ford in a Falstaff revival instead. She begged to differ, and now reportedly says that she may be differing through the Italian courts.

Driving home this evening I heard a well-known promoter and a soprano talk this out and both rushed to the defence of La Dessì. Now I’d be the last person to say that Mr Zeffirelli has been particularly gallant about all of this, and it’s fairly astounding that it didn’t come up when the casting was first up for discussion (after all, it’s not as if Mrs Dessì is an unknown quantity), but I’m a little more reluctant to quibble with his decision as an instant, knee-jerk reaction.

Opera has changed, what audiences expect has to an extent shifted. It’s not that every female on the stage has to look like Kate Royal or Danielle DeNiese, but they have to look credible. Yes, there are rare occasions where the voice is so stupendous, and the vocal acting so convincing, that disbelief is willingly suspended. And others where make up and lighting conspire to hide harsh reality (I vividly remember my shock when going backstage as a teenager at La Scala to meet Mirella Freni to see that the entirely convincing young girl of the opera was transformed – or rather, un-transformed – into a sweet grandmother-type).

But Dessì’s voice, wonderful artist though she is, has never been quite so exceptional as to fall into the first category (and I speak as someone for whom the greatest stage Madama Butterfly has been Susan Bullock, hardly the image of a slender young geisha – but vocally stupendous). Characterful, yes, and there are plenty of leading Verdian roles she can and should continue to do until the will or the high notes leave her. But the alluring Violetta, a woman who lives through her ability to lure men? Don’t dismiss Zeffirelli’s instincts out of hand, that’s all I’m saying. And now I shall stop typing before I get into any more hot water.

James Inverne

James Inverne is former editor of Gramophone. He now runs a music management + PR company.

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