Mozart's concert arias are not really generically independent from his operas. They were mostly written for insertion into operas by a singer, often Mozart's girlfriend and then sister-in-law Aloysia Weber, who wanted to display her talents to their best advantage. As such, however, they stand out from other operatic arias as some of the most difficult vocal pieces Mozart composed. Several of these pieces are in Queen of the Night territory, with not just individual high notes but lengthy passages that require the singer to be melodic at the very top of her range. This 1994 release by French soprano Natalie Dessay, just hitting the very top of her game, has been a favorite among aficionados of Mozart's vocal music, and its reissue in Virgin Classics' budget line gives other listeners a chance to try it out. For sheer agility in the top register, it's hard to beat. Dessay not only hits the multiple examples of the E two octaves plus above middle C, she sounds good doing so, and she makes real music as the tune bounces around a few steps below that. There are sopranos with greater dramatic insight than Dessay, and plenty with more sheer power, but for the pleasure of hearing a trained voice enter territory where only a few can go, this disc remains a rare find. The Lyon Opera Orchestra under Theodor Guschlbauer stays out of Dessay's way, which is exactly the right place for it. The booklet notes, in English, French, and German (the French and German notes are different from the English but identical to each other), are abbreviated from the earlier release; there is no biographical information, but the basic background on the music is helpful. No texts are given, but when you hear Dessay hit the stratosphere, you won't care.
Virgin Classics' two-disc SACD collection of arias, scenes, and songs from Natalie Dessay's complete opera recordings and recital CDs is notable for its variety and contains some rarities, such as excerpts from Meyerbeer's Le pardon de Ploërmel and Offenbach's Robinson Crusoë, as well as standard repertoire. The first disc is devoted to French opera and operetta (if you count Lucie de Lammermoor as French). The second disc includes music by Mozart (arias for both Pamina and the Queen of the Night), Handel, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Thelonius Monk, and Leonard Bernstein, among others. Dessay's light and silvery coloratura is remarkably secure throughout her range and is especially brilliant in the stratospheric reaches, an attribute that makes her "Bell Song" from Lakmé and Olympia's song from Les Contes d'Hoffmann truly spectacular. Her performance of Pamina's "Ach! Ich fühl's," is deeply emotional and is as persuasive as the Queen of the Night's "Der Hölle Rache." The limpidity of the Handel aria demonstrates her mastery of an emotional world far from the pyrotechnics of French grand opera. She is equally at ease in the newer repertoire, an understated obbligato part for a French adaptation of Monk's "'Round Midnight" and Bernstein's "Glitter and be gay," which showcases her gifts as a comedian, and to which her accent adds a charming dimension. Dessay makes a strong case even in roles that generally feature a voice with more weight, such as Manon. The many orchestras, choruses, and soloists that accompany her offer strong support. The sound throughout is clean and bright.