DiDonato takes Carnegie audience on delightful gondola ride
Just a week after her powerful performance in the title role of Handel’s Alcina, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato returned to the Carnegie Hall stage for a recital Tuesday night, the first solo performance in her ongoing season “Perspectives” series.
Her audiences tell the world she is a star, but stardom alone is devalued currency in a sensationalistic age. DiDonato is a great singer, with a powerful and beautiful voice, charismatic presence, and an easy stage manner—she frequently chatted with the crowd.
What is special about her is that, unlike many singers, she is also a fine musician. Where stars dazzle and delight in a manner often jejune, a musician’s musician like DiDonato satisfies and leaves a lingering impression.
She gave her program the title “A Journey Through Venice,” and the music was about that city, in one way or another, through the changing sensibilities of eras and the viewpoints of different nations.
Starting the concert were two Vivaldi arias from Ercole su’l Termodonte, the showy “Onde chiare che sussurrate,” and the wonderful “Amato ben.” Vivaldi arranged for the piano sounds like a guitar played with mittens on, even with the overall agile, sensitive and clear accompaniment of pianist David Zobel. Still, these were involving performances.
DiDonato approaches every piece with the stylistic attention and expression it calls for. In these arias, she favored a relatively delicate sound from the head, and sounded like a magical wind-up bird in the first piece. Her singing in “Amato ben” had an intense edge of melancholy and heartache.
Her dynamic range is impressive, and her voice has consistent body and presence at all volumes. She can change the shape of her sound to fit the idiomatic qualities of whatever music she is singing, following the different aesthetic values of stylistic eras, and revealing the fine-grained variations between regions and languages.
From baroque Venice, she moved on to the city as romantic destination with Fauré’s Cinq mélodies “de Venise.” These are fine, expressive songs about the Venice of the imagination, lively and earthy, free of romantic and impressionist clichés, and DiDonato brought more silver color and a companionable directness to her voice, especially for the lovely lullaby “En sourdine.”
Music from Rossini evoked the Venice of memory, or the hazy, retrospective fantasies of one’s later years, via three songs from Volume 1 of the composer’s Péchés de vielliesse. The songs, about a gondolier’s regatta, are full of vibrant energy, and DiDonato sang them with a good-natured feeling of weight from her throat.
After intermission, the music from Rossini grew more serious and dramatic: Desdemona’s aria “Assisa al piè d’un salice,” from his Otello. In this, the character plumbs the depths of her anxiety over her husband’s looming, dangerous jealousy. The music is masterful, building to a focussed point of emotion, without histrionics, going from lyrical to brittle. This brought out the best in DiDonato’s singing: her voice is so full of life, and fire is her natural element, and the understatement she sang with served her admirably. Saying a complex, difficult thing with so little is powerful.
The concert finished with neo-Romantic and romantic music from English composer Michael Head and Proust’s friend Reynaldo Hahn, respectively. Head’s Three Songs of Venice were originally written for the great Dame Janet Baker, and it’s a measure of how good DiDonato is that her singing brought forth ghosts of Baker’s voice. DiDonato’s singing sat at equal level with memories of Dame Janet.
Hahn’s slightly eccentric, more than a bit sentimental, song set Venezia has enduring charm. His name and his music are not as widely heard today, but some of the melodies from Venezia are ear-worms that have come to us through sappy string arrangements.
DiDonato’s natural humanity added to the pleasure and avoided pandering: she really is a “regular gal” who just happens to be a spectacular singer. She sang five of the songs: “Sopra l’acqua indormenzada,” “La barcheta,” “L’avertimento,” “Che peca,” and “La primavera.” She enjoyed her own comic exaggerations in “Che peca,” and the famous, long, sensuous melody on the syllable “Ah!” from “La barcheta” was gorgeous. “La primavera” ended the concert with a flourish.
Brought back on stage by the applause, she added the filigree of Rossini’s terrific “Canzonetta Spagnuola,” and, holding an enormous bouquet, she dispatched a newish Italian pop song, “Non ti scordar mai di me,” with bel canto power, a cannon shooting a marble to the moon.
Joyce DiDonato returns in her “Perspectives Series” February 5, 2015. carnegiehall.org.