The big mystery in the origin story is why Ms. Streisand passed on what, in hindsight, seems like a golden creative opportunity. Back then she was feeling “musically restless,” as she put it in a recent email, and was looking for ways to test herself. Yet Ms. Streisand had qualms about the Legrand/Bergman idea, then referred to as “Life Cycle of a Woman.”
“I don’t think Michel, Marilyn and Alan had fully mapped out their concept yet, except for the basic ‘womb to tomb’ idea,” Ms. Streisand said, adding that in 1973 they recorded five songs intended for the projects, which she released on various albums since. (Among them were “Between Yesterday and Tomorrow,” the new recording’s poignant title track, and the tender lullaby “Mother and Child,” in which the singer plays both roles and essentially duets with herself.)
“The only two songs I didn’t relate to musically or lyrically, at the time,” she added, “were about birth and death. They didn’t want to change them, and then we all became involved in other projects, so the idea lost momentum.”
And there was another, more practical impediment.
“I remember one of the things that made the project slightly complicated was that I’d decided to record standing in the middle of the studio surrounded by the orchestra,” Ms. Streisand said. “It’s thrilling being enveloped by the music, as opposed to standing in an isolated vocal booth with the musicians playing on the other side of the glass. However, it made the record very difficult to mix — because if we wanted to raise or lower my vocal level, it raised or lowered all the music around it!”
Ms. Dessay admitted in a phone interview from France that Ms. Streisand’s decision not to record the full oratorio made things easier. “She didn’t make it her own, which freed me to be the inspiration for the cycle’s completion,” she said. “The inclusion of birth and death speaks to me, and I really wanted to perform that.”
In the 1990s, Ms. Dessay rose to coloratura fame in the opera world for the vividness and commitment of her acting, both in comic roles (she was brilliant as the doll Olympia in “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” and the spunky Zerbinetta in “Ariadne auf Naxos) and tragic ones (she opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2007-08 season in “Lucia di Lammermoor”).
And since stepping away from staged opera, she has redirected her energies toward theater, touring France in Howard Barker’s “Und” and currently rehearsing the Stefan Zweig drama “Legend of a Life.” Portraying Mr. Legrand’s unnamed woman came naturally to her; she switches to a little-girl tone in “Mother and Child” without sounding cloying.
Singing the material was another matter, and Ms. Dessay had to retrain herself. (The new album’s liner notes credit the American jazz singer Tierney Sutton as vocal coach.)
“First of all, when you are miked you don’t sing in the same range, so there was a part of my voice, the lower register, I’d never used in opera,” she said. “I’m not going to turn into Patti LuPone or Barbra Streisand, but I’m learning to find my other voice — maybe my true voice.”
Since his 1954 debut album, “I Love Paris,” Mr. Legrand has worked in various genres while creating an immediately recognizable sound, including his many jazz recordings; his association with the filmmaker Jacques Demy on movie musicals like “The Young Girls of Rochefort”; his sophisticated soundtracks, most notably “Summer of ’42” and “The Thomas Crown Affair,” which spawned the hit “The Windmills of Your Mind”; and his Oscar-winning score for Ms. Streisand’s directorial debut, “Yentl.”
All of those styles can be heard on the lush “Between Yesterday and Tomorrow,” which feels like the summation of a prodigious career and allows Ms. Dessay to dart with agility and confidence from girlishness to seduction and even, on “The More You Have,” gentle swing.
“It’s so ‘Austin Powers,’” she said of that track, adding that the work “also nods to Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, Debussy, Rodrigo. That’s what’s great about Michel: He has a freedom today that he may not have had 30 or 40 years ago. If he wants to pay tribute to composers he loves, well, he just does. It’s his way of saying, ‘This is part of my world, this is what has nourished me, and now it’s part of my music.’”
The catchy immediacy of Mr. Legrand’s tunes masks how difficult it can be to sing them. “There’s a feeling of water, somehow, abandoned and never-ending, combined with tricky melodic surprises that require great pitch precision or you miss the key details that make each phrase special,” said the singer Melissa Errico, who is among his most capable contemporary interpreters, starring in his only Broadway show, “Amour,” in 2002, and releasing the album “Legrand Affair” in 2011.
“Between Yesterday and Tomorrow” abounds with delicious touches that reward close listening. Ms. Dessay points out, for instance, that she exhales during the birth song and inhales during the death one, and that the album works as a continuous loop.
“I thought that it could begin again endlessly,” she said, “and that this woman could be born and die endlessly, and that this is the story of humanity. It’s very particular, very personal and very universal at the same time.”
Mr. Legrand’s arrangements for the London Studio Orchestra have a majestic sweep that may remind listeners of classic Hollywood scores as much as the composer’s own glories. Ms. Errico recalled he once told her that he meant his arrangements to be both “intimate and enormous.”
The bassist Pierre Boussaguet has been collaborating with Mr. Legrand since 1993, but he was not quite prepared for the emotional impact of the full orchestration. “I was in tears after a few hours on the first day of recording,” he said by email. “I looked around and saw Natalie was crying as well.”
Mr. Legrand said he wasn’t surprised. “The older you get, the better you get, and I write 45 times better than I did back then,” he said, chuckling. “I hope it’s true, in any case.”Continue reading the main story
Asked to describe Natalie Dessay to someone who’d never heard of her, one could say that she was France’s answer to Kate Bush. Both of them blessed with an elfin physique, mercurial temperament and an ethereally high vocal register, they also share a determination to plough their own furrows in defiance of fashions and trends.
Except that instead of writing and performing her own pop songs, Dessay has been a globally celebrated opera star, electrifying audiences for two decades with her intensity and individuality in roles varying from Donizetti’s tragic Lucia di Lammermoor to the insouciant Zerbinetta in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. And while she’s much too off the wall to be described as a conventional diva, she has dimples of iron and a very particular way of pronouncing that important word “non.”
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Two years ago, Dessay suddenly announced that she was giving opera up, and non, she wouldn’t be taking the normal path of writing a self-congratulatory memoir, sitting on competition panels and passing her secrets on to students in a conservatoire. “Have pity on me!” she moans satirically at the thought of such a fate.
Leaving opera hasn’t been a wrench. “It was the right time to stop,” she says. “I had done what I had to do. My interest had ended.”
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Behind this emphatic statement is the knowledge that she pushed herself to her limit by embarking on the demanding role of Violetta in La Traviata in 2011; had she persevered, she could have faced a recurrence of the nodes on her vocal cords which threatened to bring her career to a juddering halt between 2001 and 2004. Fine surgery saved her then, and now she can dismiss the episode with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. Ten years on, however, she has to be more cautious: perhaps opera has given her up as much as the other way round?
She doesn’t altogether deny this. “To be Violetta was wonderful, but it wasn’t really meant for my voice,” she says. “I struggled with the music, it was torture. Still, after I have been that fantastic character, what else is there? I am 50 now, I can’t sing Wagner, and I can’t go on playing crazy young girls.“
“I don’t have regrets – opera is wonderful – but I never found partners on stage who wanted to explore the dramatic aspects as far as I did. I worked with many really talented people, but not people like me. I would change the way opera is performed if I could: it needs much more rehearsal than it gets, but rehearsal is too expensive.
“So it’s a relief not to be in that business any longer. Now I feel I am more in charge.”
Now, Dessay has gone where she has always wanted to go before she got lost in the Byzantine halls of opera – towards “pure theatre and pure music,” as she puts it. The journey began last spring when in one of Paris’ most prestigious theatres (the Athénée Théâtre Louis Jouvet), she turned to her speaking voice and earned rave reviews performing Und, a 70-minute monologue by the radical English playwright Howard Barker.
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But she’s not turning her back on the more classical repertory entirely, and tonight she will pay one of her all-too-infrequent visits to London, where at the Barbican Centre her seductively smoky soprano will weave its way through subtle French mélodies by Fauré and Duparc drawn from her deliciously cool new CD Fiançailles pour rire (“Getting married for a laugh”) – an object lesson in how to give this elusive music rich but subtle meaning.
Next April, she will embark on another fresh challenge when she leads a new production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical melodrama Passion at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, taking the role of Fosca, a repellent older woman who mesmerises a handsome young soldier. “She is meant to be very ugly,” explains Dessay who is anything but. “So much more fun for me to act!”
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She admits to being “nervous” about singing in English for her upcoming role in Passion. “What attracted me to it? It’s something new to me, a musical that is not really a musical. I don’t worry so much about the dialogue, because I have a very beautiful speaking voice – much more beautiful than my singing voice, I think – and if I show a bit of an accent, that will fit fine with my conception of Fosca.”
Behind Dessay’s unstoppable ego and determination to do things her way is the supportive figure of her husband the operatic bass Laurent Naouri, with whom she has two teenage student children, both of whom have inherited their parents’ musical bent. Naouri is her rock, she admits, and whenever their schedules permit, they enjoy working together on recital programmes. “No, we don’t argue, ” she says. “We just share.”
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Partly because of her commitment to her family, Paris has always been the centre of Dessay’s career, and she enjoys a movie-star level of fame in the city – something that she says she can take or leave.
London, on the other hand, is somewhere she has never quite cracked: she sang only two roles at Covent Garden (one of which, Marie in Donizetti’s comedy La Fille du Régiment won her an Olivier Award), turning down a lot of its other offers because she would accept only new productions and the longer rehearsal periods they entail, and she seems to have blotted her copybook at the Wigmore Hall too. “I sang there once. It was very nice, with a good acoustic, but they never ask me back. I complained about the lighting and I don’t think they liked that. “
Perhaps the English find her habit of making her feelings plain a bit disconcerting. “I did some master classes with Laurent at Aldeburgh last summer. I told them not to be frightened of themselves, to explore their imaginations. But I also said that personality is something you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t.” She should know.
Natalie Dessay sings at the Barbican Hall on Friday; her new CD Fiançailles pour rire: Mélodies Françaises is released on Erato