Danielle de Niese does Handel, and more.

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Oct. 12 2007 3:04 PM

The Enchantress

Danielle de Niese, the diva who can bring a new generation to opera.

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De Niese is an enchantress, of course. Her magic does not require that she be physically present; it works just fine on video. But if so much of it is visual, what happens when all she has to conjure with is her voice? Will the spell—transferred to a spinning circle—be unbroken? Or will her man come to his senses and escape?

Let's take the opening cut: " Da tempeste," the bravura aria Cleopatra sings when, having escaped dungeons, daggers, and a particularly nasty countertenor, she suddenly finds herself with Egypt, Caesar, and the known world at her feet. "If a ship, buffeted by storms, then reaches safe harbor, it no longer knows what to wish for." In this foray into nautical psychology even so fine a Cleopatra as Magdalena Kozená falls short, incising a triumph so steely that one wonders if her dreadnought was ever at risk. De Niese, at a less frenetic tempo, conveys relief and a giddy joy: She's on solid ground, but her legs are still shaking. In the repeat of the A section, where most singers just strut their stuff, de Niese uses ornaments as tools to dig deeper into the truth of the scene, striking gold with a spine-tingling cadenza. Compare the cadenza offered more than 40 years ago by one of the first Cleopatras on record, and to many ears still the best (of whom more later): It's great fun, but empty of musical or dramatic sense.

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If, on more plaintive numbers (such as "Lascia ch'io pianga," from Rinaldo, de Niese doesn't always sound the uttermost depths of sorrow, her youthful passion has a power of its own. Under, or somewhere near, the baton of William Christie—her conductor at Glyndebourne and elsewhere—the players of Les Arts Florissants partner her gallantly.

A quibble: While on the Glyndebourne DVD de Niese's voice is, like her person, luscious from top to bottom, on the record it seems just a tad uneven, with hints of glare in the upper or "cash" register (so called because it produces the "money note"); I trust this can be chalked up to close miking and to the acoustics of the Paris church in which the recording was made. Mostly, though, the voice remains fresh, delicious—and, yes, enchanting. At least for this victim, the spell holds. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Decca has graced the CD booklet with an all-Danielle fashion portfolio worthy of Vogue.

A young American singer takes the role of Cleopatra and is catapulted to instant fame. Sound familiar? It should if you paid the slightest attention to the recent obits for Beverly Sills, whose Cleopatrapulting took place in 1966. I'm not about to equate the two ladies vocally (love may be blind, but it isn't deaf). Still, there are parallels worth drawing.

Onstage and off, Sills came across as unaffected, even "natural." But it isn't possible to be natural in opera any more than in sword-swallowing. In Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment—a 1974 Wolf Trap performance taped for TV—her gestures and facial expressions are refreshing because they come not from opera buffa but from vaudeville and Hollywood. (She claimed she took her cues from Lucille Ball, but she reminds me more of Harpo.) Even in more serious roles, such as her sublime Manon, one sensed a light emanating more from the Great White Way than from La Scala or the Palais Garnier.

De Niese, too, oxygenates the opera house with acting that seems unoperatic—which is not to say it's not stagey. She could be Cleoparachuted into a Hilary Duff or Lindsay Lohan flick, and no one would bat an eye, at least until she started singing; even then, her dance moves might well distract viewers from the fact that the notes were written almost 300 years ago by a man wearing a wig the size of a collie.

Sills, who could duet with Danny Kaye as gracefully as with Nicolai Gedda, made many Americans feel at home in opera for the first time. De Niese has the potential to be that sort of rara avis (as Julius would say): not a glitzy, bloated "crossover" star, but one who doesn't need to cross over because she naturally lives in both worlds.

I could be wrong, of course—in which case, Mr. Gelb, Galatea 1.0 is ready to roll.

Evan Eisenberg's essays and satire have appeared in The New Yorker, the Atlantic, and other publications. His books includeThe Recording Angel andThe Ecology of Eden.

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