The Drama Queen Descends on London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Joyce DiDonato: Drama Queens:Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), Il Complesso Barocco, Dmitry Sinkovsky (violin/director). Barbican Hall, London, 6.2.2013. (JPr)

Cesti: ‘Intorno all’idol mio’ from Orontea
Scarlatti: Sinfonia from Tolomeo ed Alessandro
Monteverdi: ‘Disprezzata regina’ from L’Incoronazione di Poppea
Giacomelli: ‘Sposa, son disprezzata’ from Merope
Vivaldi: Concerto for violin and strings RV 242 “Per Pisendel”
Orlandini: ‘Da torbida procella’ from Berenice
Hasse: ‘Morte col fiero aspetto’ from Antonio e Cleopatra
Handel: ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ from Giulio Cesare
Passacaglia from Radamisto
Porta: ‘Madre diletta, abbracciami’ from Ifigenia in Aulide
Gluck: Ballet music from Armide
Handel: ‘Brilla nell’alma’ from Alessandro

Alan Curtis artistic consultant

Joyce DiDonato Photo copyright Josef Fischaller
Joyce DiDonato
Photo copyright Josef Fischaller

Joyce DiDonato records for EMI/Virgin Classics with, among her many releases, a Grammy Award-winning solo CD, Diva Divo (review), that has the arias from both male and female characters telling the same story from their different perspectives. Everyone knows that it is not good enough these days just to rehash the ‘routine’ and every new release – if it is to ‘sell’ – must have a different slant, a fresh concept. And so we arrive at this concert, part of a worldwide tour to promote Drama Queens, her recent CD of Baroque arias.

She was outstanding in the recent Met Live broadcast of Maria Stuarda (review). Her reputation as a consummate artist and down-to-earth personality clearly precedes her as she managed to fill this large venue with a programme with works, amongst others, by Geminiano Giacomelli, Giuseppe Orlandini, Johann Adolf Hasse and Giovanni Porta – none of whom, naturally, were known to me or, I suspect, familiar to anyone without a specific love of Baroque music … except, of course, anyone who has already bought Ms DiDonato’s CD.

As Christopher Cook’s absolutely splendid programme notes began ‘Why isn’t it over until the fat lady dies? Though, to be fair, nowadays it’s usually a rather more svelte woman who shuffles off her mortal coil as the curtain falls. But the question remains, why do women have to die in so many operatic last acts, and why do they go raging into that ungentle night, despised, rejected or simply abandoned, leaving their men to grieve or – in so many Baroque operas – to live on with a new and often younger companion. Eighteenth-century audiences literally loved their suffering heroines to death.’

About the ‘svelte’, well Ms DiDonato initially looked splendid in the slim red Vivienne Westwood gown specially designed for the performances of Drama Queens that for some reason expanded after the interval to include a rather ungainly ruched ball-gown skirt and traditional pannier. Ms DiDonato’s stage persona is not so Diva-ish that she deserved this and neither were the women of power she portrayed ‘scarlet women’ or regal enough for such an elaborate costume. The various arias often found her heroines at their most human and fragile, whilst sounding as defiant as the operatic conventions of the time allowed.

Cesti’s Orontea is torn between royal duty and love for a young painter, Alidoro. Ottavia from Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea rages against her fate as Nero casts her aside. Giacomelli’s Irene contemplates suicide with failing courage. Hasse and Handel brought us two versions of the familiar Cleopatra story. There was a very moving extract from Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide as Clytemnestra’s daughter bids farewell to her mother. The most upbeat music concluded the two halves of the concert, Orlandini’s Berenice fears fate is tossing her like a ship on stormy seas and Handel’s Rossane triumphs that she has beaten her rival and won the affection of Alexander. It was during these lighter moments that Ms DiDonato’s bare right shoulder jiggled most attractively in time with the music.

Kansas-born Joyce DiDonato’s virtuosity is not in doubt and she can imbue any of the myriad flowery lines with some drama, she has wonderful breath control, impeccable vocal technique and use of language. The latter was highlighted perfectly by her soft ‘Madre’ at the opening of Porta’s ‘Madre diletta, abbracciami’ (Dearest mother, embrace me). Also her vehement ‘barbaro’ (barbarian) during her second encore, Orlandini’s ‘Col versar, barbaro, il sangue’ seemed especially heartfelt and seemed to hint at another reason behind this CD of often scorned or abandoned women – but here is not the place to dwell on this. Nevertheless I was left with a feeling that despite the great work artistic consultant, Alan Curtis, had achieved by exhuming these rarities it is clear that this seventeenth- and eighteenth century music is neglected for a very good reason. That is because there is never a real opportunity fully to connect with the various characters because all emotion seems totally repressed and this would not be possible until opera composers of a future generation abandoned purely florid vocalism for more realistic drama.

Ms DiDonato sank onto a stool during some of the instrumental excerpts that unnecessarily extended the recital and seemed like one of her queens surrounded on a throne by her courtiers. These were the accomplished Italian Baroque ensemble Il Complesso Barocco under violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky. He gave a passable Nigel Kennedy impression during a hyperactive performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor for violin and strings (RV 242) that had more histrionics than Ms DiDonato gave us during the whole evening. The group provided her with the perfect accompaniment, as well as shining during their own renditions of Scarlatti, Handel and Gluck. The men’s socks were even colour-coordinated to her frock! It was not clear if they were using period instruments but I found their incessant re-tuning very wearisome.

To be honest, Joyce DiDonato was at her very best in the coloratura pyrotechnics of that joyful ‘Brilla nell’alma’ (My soul is trembling) from Handel’s Alessandro which ended the concert on a high note. But that is the problem, as Ms DiDonato makes a better soprano than mezzo and most of the music, especially before the interval, required some more intensity from her chest voice that – wonderful singer that she undoubtedly is – she is not really capable of in this repertoire. The plaintive ‘Lasciami piangere’ from Reinhard Keiser’s Fredegunda was the first of her encores that sent a jubilant audience away happy. For me it was a ‘nice’ evening with some beautiful singing but no more; I felt emotionally detached from what I heard but had not expected to be from someone as great as Ms DiDonato.

Jim Pritchard

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