14 Sep 2020

Joyce DiDonato: Met Stars Live in Concert

There was never any doubt that the fifth of the twelve Met Stars Live in Concert broadcasts was going to be a palpably intense and vivid event, as well as a musically stunning and theatrically enervating experience.

However far she might literally have been from her online audience, Joyce DiDonato made her presence felt with immediacy - vocally, viscerally and with virtuosic impact. There are divas, there are drama queens, and then there is DiDonato, who evinces drama and stature, confidence and directness, and employs such qualities in the service of music.

At the start of the broadcast, the Met’s General Manager, Peter Gelb, explained that because Barcelona, where DiDonato resides and which was her first choice of location for her performance, had become a “Covid hotspot”, the recital had been relocated to Antwerp; but, that too became a ‘no-go location’, and so the performance was transferred to the Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum, in Germany's Ruhr area. Wikipedia tells me that the Jahrhunderthalle was ‘built in 1902 by the Bochumer Verein for the Düsseldorf industrial and commercial exhibition and was then reused as a blower machine hall for the Bochumer Verein's blast furnaces’. Well, we had a blast of musico-dramatic fire from DiDonato, who ventured into repertoire - Mahler, Mozart - with which we don’t usually associate her, and who sang surrounded by sculpture by Mexican contemporary artist Bosco Sodi which had been curated for the event by Belgian interior designer and art dealer Axel Vervoordt.

The first part of the recital was titled ‘Loss and Separation’. The tense and edgy opening of the farewell which the exiled empress, Ottavia, bids to Rome at the close of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, was our starting point. DiDonato immediately captured the febrile intensity of Ottavio’s mind at the start of her monologue of departure. This was a ‘lived’ performance: Ottavio’s pain and anger, loneliness and narcissism, were real and moving: “et io starò solinga, alternando le mosse al pianti, ai passi”, an image of lonely, endless weeping and pacing to and fro, sank low and tugged at one’s pity while also revealing the spurned empress’s self-delusion and denial. The members of Il Pomo d’Oro offered plaintive and honest reflections in accompanying the raw recitative.

DiDonato segued into Didon’s Final Scene in Les Troyens, drawn by pianist Carrie-Ann Matheson’s theatrical invitation. This was no-holds-barred commitment. High notes were launched fearlessly; a burning chest voice was delved into fervently. Bold and brave doesn’t begin to describe DiDonato’s courage and immersion. She sank to the floor, but Didon’s regality and passionate self-definition were never in doubt, though her farewell to her people rippled with genuine feeling and love, and a softer gentleness ultimately held sway. Matheson painted a sympathetic, shapely backdrop to the final departure.

DiDonato also sang Mahler’s Rückert setting, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, literally on her knees, though if the expressive tenor was one of introspection, the voice was anything but: alert, crystalline at first, then more energised and vitalised. The embracing poignancy of those Mahlerian arches, which rise aspiringly, then fall, just so slightly, in sadness, nostalgia and resignation, took one’s breath away. Surely, once, or if, ‘normal’ musical life resumes, Mahler performances and recordings must beckon. Again, Matheson, playing in the shadows, made the piano an equally expressive voice.

Before Part 2 of the streamed recital, a recording of one of DiDonato’s Met performances was broadcast: ‘Deh! Tu di un’umile preghiera’ from Maria Stuarda surely made every opera-lover long to be back in the theatre again. When ‘The Restorative Power of Nature’ reconvened, it caught DiDonato and the engineers unawares, for we had some unscripted interjections before the mezzo-soprano before she sang a traditional American song, ‘Shenandoah’: this did at least confirm that these Met streamings are indeed live! ‘As with rosy steps from morn’, from Handel’s Theodora, sustained the directness of the traditional song - even cadential ornaments were minimal and restrained - and emphasised the relaxed expansiveness of DiDonato’s mezzo range. And, there was some terrific theorbo playing too! Indeed, the theorbo, joined by a light-footed cello, led without pause into Monteverdi’s ‘Illustratevi, o cieli’ ( Il Ritorno d’Ulisse), and the buoyancy and litheness, and accuracy, of DiDonato’s mezzo, as well as its expressive intensity were further confirmed in the subsequent, ‘Dopo notte’ from Handel’s Ariodante. Described by the Met’s host, Christine Goerke, as one of DiDonato’s ‘signature arias’, this number truly breathed, burned and blossomed. One could see the musicians of Il Pomo d’Oro absorb DiDonato’s vivacity, which invigorated their own playing.

A filmed discussion between DiDonato and Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, and whose experiences DiDonato has brought to operatic life in Jake Heggie’s opera, preceded the performance of ‘I dream a world’ by Kenyatta Hughes, which opened the final part of the programme, ‘Unity and Love’. A setting of Langston Hughes’ poem, ‘I dream a world’ is lyrical and expresses aspiring sentiments - the soaring obliggato cello part rises high and searches, reaches - and DiDonato was committed to its sentiments. As she has explained, ‘I’m calling this concert “I dream a world” based on the Langston Hughes poem, and I’ve asked Kenyatta Hughes to write a new piece setting this poignant text. I met Kenyatta while he was incarcerated at Sing Sing Prison 4 years ago and his powerful songwriting skills were immediately apparent: he will bring a very personal, transformative element to this concert. The one thing I wish people to walk away from this experience with, is the demonstrative reminder of how necessary, how unifying, and how transformative music and the arts are, and why we must protect it, fight for it, and create it more radically than ever before.’

I’m not sure that Hughes’ composition fully embodies or realises such aspirations musically, but Cesti’s ‘Intorno all’idol mio’ (Hover around my beloved, Orontea) which followed was more diverse in vocal colourings; there were further farewells to life, sincere and whispered. Afterwards, DiDonato offered “mille grazia” to her friends from Il Pomo d’Oro who had accompanied her in works which would “never see the light of day on the Metropolitan Opera stage”. And, she remembered her 2005 debut at the Met, as Cherubino, and reflected on how it might be fun to re-imagine the amorous page, in a smoky French café, confronted with ‘an Edith Piaf type’. ‘Voi che sapete’ transformed DiDonato into a passion-fuelled adolescent - Matheson’s staccato accompaniment was a deliciously wry commentary on the page’s over-heated yearnings. There was crystalline vibrancy here to melt any heart. DiDonato’s performance of Piaf’s own ‘signature song’, ‘La vie en rose’, transported us over years and miles to a world of ‘Je ne regrette rien’. But, as DiDonato emphasised in her closing remarks, there are things to regret, lament and to fear. Yet, audiences must be patient, for performers would be intrepid, “instead of focusing in what we’re missing, let’s focus on what we have now”.

An articulate but obviously emotionally moved DiDonato spoke with directness and honesty about the challenges facing performers and the arts more generally, and asked listeners to make the case for the life-giving essentiality of music and creative arts. Ginastera’s ‘Canción al árbol del olvido’, with its sparse textures and obsessively repeating rhythms, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘You’ll never walk alone’, made a persuasive case for music’s ability to unite, sustain and inspire.

Claire Seymour

Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), Carrie-Ann Matheson (piano), Il Pomo d’Oro

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

Broadcast live from Jahrhunderthalle Bochum, Germany; Saturday 12 th September 2020.