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The Deepest Desire
08 Dec 2006

The Deepest Desire

“In choosing the program for a debut recital disc, perhaps an artist should be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task: how in the world do I begin to sort through the wealth of masterpieces at my fingertips, daring to stamp a select few with my voice?”

The Deepest Desire

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano, Frances Shelly, flute, David Zobel, piano

Eloquentia EL 0504 [CD]

$21.98  Click to buy

So writes Joyce DiDonato in her personal introduction to The Deepest Desire, a title that names the theme of the recital as she sees it. I also see in her allusion to “stamping a select few songs with my voice” a secondary theme of personal identity that resonates throughout the songs as well.

The five songs by Leonard Bernstein that energetically open the recital include Two Love Songs, written in 1960, and three songs from Songfest, a project setting texts by a variety of American poets that was originally a commission for the Bicentenniel celebration in 1976 but was not completed in time. According to Bernstein, even when the commission was withdrawn, he completed the project, which had taken on great meaning to him as a way, in Bernstein’s words, to “reflect the experience of the American artist.” DiDonato sees in Bernstein’s life story a “torment” resulting from his desire to be recognized as a serious composer, and in the songs that she has chosen a “haunting desire for something unreachable.” Indeed, the Two Love Songs set Rilke poems in which love’s desire is so strong as to erase the boundaries of identity. In the first of the Songfest songs, “Music I heard with you” the intense closeness is only remembered after the affair has ended, and next, in “What lips my lips have kissed,” a succession of past loves have been forgotten individually, but live on in the poet’s sense of having been enlarged by past love. This set ends with “A Julia de Burgos,” a setting of a Spanish-language poem by the Puerto Rican poet of that name to what one might call her social self. In pianist David Zobel’s energetic presentation of the rhythmic accompaniment we hear the galloping “runaway Rosinante” metaphor for the artist’s inner fire.

The best-known repertoire in the recital is Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. While “desire” may not be the first theme that comes to mind when thinking of this poet, DiDonato is correct in seeing in her poetry a desire for answers, and I would specifically point to the poet’s desire to find her place in the cosmos, her identity as a saint, sinner, or simply a seeker within the Calvinist world-view that surrounded her. DiDonato characterizes the music of Copland’s Dickinson settings as “sometimes stark, sometimes assaulting,” and she can certainly further these effects with her voice, although her tone is also quite beautiful in the gentler moments of “Nature, the gentlest mother”, “The World Feels Dusty”, “Heart we will forget him”, and the final note of “The Chariot”, in which the speaker rides into eternity with her gentleman caller Death.

The Deepest Desire is the title of the closing set of songs, settings by Jake Heggie of texts he requested from Sister Helen Préjean (the model for the character of Sister Helen in Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking), describing the source of her spirituality in “the deepest desire of her heart”. Here the piano and voice are joined by the flute of Frances Shelly, which has a lengthy solo at the opening, reminding me of the flute solo I heard at the beginning of a Whirling Dervish ceremony in Turkey, where the improvisation of the flute represented the soul’s desire for the ultimate. This ushers in a Prelude followed by “Four Meditations on Love”, in which Sister Helen describes her experience of love as “the pure energy of God” and how it led her away from her original desire to “be with God in Heaven” and instead to “loose yourself!” and work with all her being to realize “the deepest desire,” that for justice on earth. The songs, while not exceptionally melodic, are varied, expressive, and listenable, particularly when presented by a singer as thoughtful, communicative, and vocally endowed as DiDonato.

Indeed, there is another “deepest desire” present in this recital, that of Joyce DiDonato to communicate. She has given a great deal of thought to the texts, the music, and to her own relationship to them, and, when she speaks of “stamping [them] with my voice” it is a voice of considerable strength and range that she uses to produce a wide variety of vocal colors, from meltingly beautiful to hard and edgy. While this tonal variety brings the songs’ details into high relief, I personally found the many color changes rather distracting in some places, detracting from the clarity of the words in others. On the other hand, in the phrases of “Extinguish my eyes” that are essentially vocalises on an “oo” vowel, and in the playful nonsense syllables of the Bernstein “Piccola Serenata” that acts as an encore “bonus track”, her sound can be fascinating and ravishing. Overall, this is a recital to hear when one is willing to be energized and challenged to think by the music, rather than in the car on the way home from an intense meeting (as I first tried it, quickly putting it aside for a time when I was better able to receive it). Listeners desiring to hear DiDonato’s considerable artistry in the service of an interesting but more relaxing set of songs will be pleased to know that her Wigmore Hall recital of songs themed around the city of Venice has also been released by the BBC this year (under the Wigmore Hall Live imprint). In the Rossini, Michael Head, Fauré, and Hahn songs that make up the program (as well as in the Handel and Rossini arias that act as encores) we are treated to a very satisfying dose of the beautiful singing that has justly earned her a position among the exciting young bel canto singers.

I find it interesting that The Deepest Desire, a debut recital exploring the theme of personal identity, begins with a set of songs written for a mezzo-soprano of several generations ago, Jennie Tourel, and ends with a set written for another mezzo who is still very active, Susan Graham, who created the role of Sister Helen in the original production of Dead Man Walking, a role that DiDonato went on to perform with the New York City Opera. In light of the intelligence, artistry, and sheer vocal talent that she brings to these songs, I would not be surprised at all if her recitals in the not-too-distant future include songs written for her as well.

Reflecting this disc’s production in France, where it won the Diapason d’or de l’année, the notes (both DiDonato’s personal introduction, and the notes on the songs by Benjamin Sosland) and artist biographies, as well as the texts of the songs, are presented in both English and French (“A Julia de Burgos” is, of course, also in Spanish).

Barbara Miller


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