Live in Concert Joyce DiDonato is a virtuoso singer who dives body and soul into all she sings

GermanyGermany Met Stars Live in Concert [5] – Joyce DiDonato in Bochum: Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), Carrie-Ann Matheson (piano), Il Pomo d’Oro. Live Streamed in HD (directed by Gary Halvorson) from the Jahrhunderthalle, Bochum, Germany, 12.9.2020. (MMB)

Joyce DiDonato

Monteverdi – ‘Addio Roma’ from L’incoronazione di Poppea, ‘Illustratevi, o cieli’ from Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria
Berlioz – ‘Didon’s Final Scene’ from Les Troyens
Mahler – ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen‘
Traditional – ‘Oh Shenandoah’
Handel – ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ from Theodora, ‘Dopo notte atra e funesta’ from Ariodante
Kenyatta Hughes – ‘I Dream a World’ (world premiere) with text by Langston Hughes, (arr. Craig Terry)
Cesti – ‘Intorno all’idol mio’ from Orontea
Mozart – ‘Voi che sapete’ from Le nozze di Figaro
Louiguy – ‘La vie en rose’ (arr. Craig Terry)
Ginastera – ‘Canción al árbol del olvido’ Op.3, No.2
Rodgers & Hammerstein – ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel (arr. Craig Terry)

Joyce DiDonato’s concert was originally to be filmed and live streamed from Barcelona (where she lives) but, as the city became a hot spot for coronavirus, it was moved to Antwerp to Axel Vervoordt’s Art Gallery. Sadly, this city also became a hot spot for the virus so, at the last minute they were again forced to move and finally able to get it done in Germany. The concert took place in Bochum’s Jahrhunderthalle, once an industrial pavilion that has been converted into a centre for the performing arts. The space was curated for the event by Belgian interior designer and antiques and art dealer Axel Vervoordt (owner of the gallery in Antwerp and DiDonato’s friend), with sculptures by Mexican contemporary artist Bosco Sodi. The space was minimalistic but cleverly set up. The sculptures were spheres of various sizes set in different points around the stage and a couple just outside of it. These were not smooth but had small cracks all round them, forming patterns that gave them texture. Around each sphere there was a little circle pool of light that changed colours from atmospheric blue to warm orange. The Chamber Ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro was placed on one side just outside the stage and pianist Carrie-Ann Matheson opposite them. Joyce – herself minimalistic styled, dressed in discreet black, little make-up and barefoot – used both sides of the stage either facing the ensemble or the pianist, depending on who accompanied her. Simple ideas but exceptionally effective and perfectly fitting into the whole concept of the recital.

As one of the most celebrated operatic mezzo-sopranos of our time, Joyce DiDonato needs hardly any introduction. Opera lovers will be familiar with her extraordinary voice and remarkable performances in the opera house or the concert hall but she is also popular outside the operatic repertoire and known for singing different types of music and for engaging in important social issues. This recital, with no audience, was no exception to what I mentioned above. The quality of her performance, the beauty of her singing, her exceptional technique and her terrific stage presence were all there. Every note was accurate, every gesture meaningful and each piece sung with heartfelt sincerity, as were her words at the end of the concert. She talked about the loss, separation, and struggle, dominating the world due to the pandemic but also offered genuine, positive words of encouragement, hope and love.

DiDonato is an honest, down to earth, easy-going but engaging artist. She is very human and not at all a diva as people often expect from opera singers. She has a captivating personality and charming, interesting, and intelligent conversation. I had the privilege of interviewing her in 2010 and the experience was extremely rewarding. (You can still read the full interview if you click here.)

She takes great care in preparing her recitals and often groups different composers and pieces under a certain topic. For this concert at the Jahrhunderthalle, the theme chosen was ‘I Dream a World’, based on a poem of the same name by American poet Langston Hughes. Composer Kenyatta Hughes wrote music to this poem and DiDonato sang the world premiere during the concert. It is a very moving song, simultaneously sad and hopeful, very appropriate for the times we live in at present, which is possibly the reason why she chose it as the theme.

The concert was divided in three distinct parts: ‘Loss and Separation’, ‘The Restorative Power of Nature’ and ‘Unity and Love’ thus indicating that the works included in each section of the concert expressed one of the above themes.

‘Loss and Separation’ began with ‘Addio Roma’ from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, immediately followed by ‘Didon’s Final Scene’ from Berlioz’s Les Troyens and then Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’. The first is a sorrowful goodbye to Rome, sung movingly and with subtle melancholy by DiDonato. In Mahler her rendition is soft, sad and poignant, bringing across the lament for wasted time touchingly. It was however in ‘Didon’s Final Scene’ from Les Troyens that all of Joyce DiDonato’s outstanding artistry and qualities as a performer effectively showed. As always, she gives it all and transforms from piece to piece and mood to mood, fully impersonating the character she is singing. Didon’s despair and pain for loving a traitor are palpable and she’s also terrifying when she begs the gods to fill her heart with hatred. Her voice is as ever extraordinary. Her crescendos have unbelievable power, sometimes giving one goosebumps, her diction is perfect, her diminuendos a thing of beauty. The flexibility of her voice is marvellous, and her high notes are never strident but instead round and warm.

A brief interlude followed, to give Joyce and fellow musicians a little breather. It was filled with a clip from one of her most memorable performances at the Met in the title role of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda where she sings the beautiful Maria’s prayer ‘Deh! Tu di un’umile preghiera’ from Act II. We then returned to Bochum’s Jahrhunderthalle for the second part of the concert, entitled ‘The Restorative Power of Nature’. She began with traditional American folk song ‘Shenandoah’, about the river of the same name – a good start for a section about the natural world. Singing it without musical accompaniment, the pure ringing of her voice made a well-known song not only sound beautiful, powerful, and full of longing but also fresh, almost as if sung for the first time. Then came three Baroque arias: Handel’s ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ from Theodora, then ‘Illustratevi, o cieli’ from Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and finally another Handel piece ‘Dopo notte atra e funesta’ from Ariodante. The Baroque repertoire is one that Joyce particularly likes and knows well, according to her own words. For this recital, she stated, she chose pieces she likes but that will almost certainly never see the light of day in a stage like the Met. All three arias fit with the nature theme and were, as always, exquisitely sung and effectively interpreted. Joyce is like a chameleon moving from one piece to the other, effortlessly incarnating the different moods and characters.

The next brief interval was filled with a video, made earlier, with Joyce DiDonato in conversation with Sister Helen Prejean whose book ‘Dead Man Walking’ inspired both a film and an opera. In the opera the role of sister Helen was sung by Joyce who was very emotional during the interview, as her admiration for Sister Helen and her engaging work against the death penalty was visible. They were joined by composer Kenyatta Hughes, a man who sat in prison and found a lifeline in music and whose song ‘I Dream a World’, to a poem by Langston Hughes, was given its world premiere at the start of the third and final part of the concert under the theme of ‘Unity and Love’. Joyce sang it engagingly, her feelings of hope and dreams palpable. The score is for voice, piano and cello and has echoes of African-American spirituals. The cello line in particular is very elegant with the instrument at times either tearful or cheery due partially to the first-rate skill of one of the cellists from Il Pomo d’Oro ensemble. Kenyatta’s song was followed by yet another Baroque aria ‘Intorno all’idol mio’ from Cesti’s Orontea, appropriate also given the fact that period instrument ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro were named after Antonio Cesti’s 1666 opera, composed for the wedding celebrations of Emperor Leopold I and Margarita Teresa of Spain. Then, came Cherubino’s charming aria ‘Voi che sapete’ from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, which was coupled with Louiguy’s ‘La vie en rose’. Joyce DiDonato explained why and told how she imagined Mozart in the Paris of the Belle Époque period and how much she thinks he would have enjoyed it. The other reason was that she pictured Cherubino in Paris, meeting perhaps with Edith Piaf in a Parisian café and getting in trouble. Thus, the two pieces would go well together and were suitable for the topic of ‘Unity and Love’. As ever, her interpretations were exceptional and theatrically believable. Craig Terry’s arrangements for ‘La vie en rose’, as earlier for Kenyatta’s new piece, were excellent and with DiDonato’s voice clearly in mind.

Carrie-Ann Matheson at the piano skilfully and elegantly supported Joyce’s singing in some of the pieces. She is an accomplished pianist with a floating quality to her playing when underlying singers’ voices and has made a very distinguished career as an accompanist. Il Pomo d’Oro, in a reduced format, due to COVID-19, played of course on period instruments. They performed each piece with enthusiasm – almost as if it were their last – and obvious joy for being able to perform. Unlike other less fortunate fellow musicians in this time of crisis. As always, they were outstanding and executed each piece with precision, subtlety or fireworks as the case might be.

The end of the recital was fast approaching, with only two further works left in the programme. There was a bit too much Baroque for my personal taste and I wished there had been more Mozart and a piece or two from the nineteenth-century bel canto repertoire. Having said that I still enjoyed the concert very much and thought it remarkable, with Joyce DiDonato in magnificent form and extraordinarily fine voice. Really no surprise here. As I mentioned before, she always gives it all, her singing is superb, and she has that rare quality of making every role sound as if the composer wrote it especially for her. Who doesn’t remember her appearance with conductor Marin Alsop at the Last Night of the Proms in 2013? (To read the review click here). Or who can’t recall her when she made headlines by fracturing her leg during a performance of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia in 2009 at the Royal Opera House, and continued until the end under excruciating pain, only to return for the remaining performances on a wheelchair with her leg in plaster? Unforgettable is the word that springs to mind.

Joyce DiDonato is a virtuoso singer who dives body and soul into each performance be it the acrobatic arias of the Baroque or bel canto, the subtle and deceptive simplicity of Mozart, Lieder or different pieces from a more popular repertoire. She undoubtedly is an opera superstar but with a down to earth, amiable, generous, and pleasant personality. And all these attributes as singer and human being were clearly demonstrated during this live streamed concert from the Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum. Her performance was memorable every step of the way and her brief speech at the end of the recital showed her social engagement and warm persona. Her words rang genuine, heartfelt, and ultimately positive. Before singing the two final pieces and finishing on a ‘sunny’ note she said, ‘I hope this concert has impacted you [us the audience at home] at heart level. I suppose I should end it in some flashy way, but I felt the need to come back to the current times and the grief we feel and remember the people we lost. There’s no handbook so we try things and we figure out as we go along. So, let’s focus on what we have now and not what we miss. I personally think love is the key to being back to our more normal lives and be certain we [at the Met and other opera and arts organisations] WILL be back.’ And thus, she ended this marvellous recital with Ginastera’s lovely ‘Canción al árbol del olvido’ and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s hymn to hope ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

Margarida Mota-Bull

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