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Joyce DiDonato [Photo by Sheila Rock courtesy of IMG Artists]
01 Feb 2010

Joyce DiDonato, Wigmore Hall

The Wigmore Hall was bursting its seams in excited anticipation of this recital by the American mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato.

Joyce DiDonato: Three Centuries of Italian Love Songs

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; David Zobel, piano; Lucy Wakeford, harp.

Above: Joyce DiDonato [Photo by Sheila Rock courtesy of IMG Artists]


Rapturous applause greeted her entrance, and the audience’s fervent delight increased with every step of this journey through the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Italian romance. Tracing a path from the late Renaissance to the turn of the twentieth century, DiDonato clearly enjoyed herself, and the programme was certainly both eclectic and generous.

DiDonato did not give herself the easiest of openings, and did not wholly pull it off. Despite her careful self-restraint, and deliberate attention to breathing and phrasing, ultimately her voice is simply too large — its colours too overt, its textures too rich — for the subtle ambiguities and delicate sensibility of the miniatures from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which she selected from the Arie antiche, a collection gathered and edited by Alessandro.Parisotti in the late-nineteenth century. Teasing madrigalisms — the ‘playful breeze’ or ‘the sound of the waves’ — seemed somewhat mannered and a little heavy-handed, as DiDonato worked too hard to conjure an air of simplicity. The Italian texts were enunciated with a naturalness and ease, particularly in Raffaello Rontani’s ‘Or ch’io non sequo più’ (‘No longer will I follow you’), but — despite some mischievous rubato in the well-known ‘Se tu m’ami’ (‘If you love me’, Parisotti, attributed Pergolesi) — the necessary light-heartedness of spirit was not fully achieved.

Most successful was Caccini’s startlingly beautiful ‘Amarilli mia bella’ (‘Amaryllis, my love one’). Here DiDonato experimented with an understated, pure tone, her vibrato-less sound enlivened by thrilling ornaments — delayed appoggiaturas and tremulous, tense trills — while the piano sought to emulate the shudders and tremors of a Renaissance continuo. Indeed, the French pianist, David Zobel, was a thoughtful and imaginative accompanist throughout this sequence, whipping up the energy in the opening ‘Danza, danza fanciulla gentile’ (‘Dance, dance, young girl’) by Francesco Durante, deftly establishing the carefree world of the opera buffa in Paisiello’s ‘Nel cor più non mi sento’ (‘Why eels my heart’). DiDonato’s spirit of fun and her ability to slip from one persona to another were apparent in this song, a Cherubino-esque faux innocence characterising her interpretation of ‘the fire of youth divine’ — and fittingly so, as the page himself was to make an appearance later in the evening.

Whatever one’s misgivings, this was however an intriguing sequence, one which balanced the renowned with the unfamiliar, and which endeavoured to offer a fresh reading of the former and to make a convincing case for the latter. The four Italian ariettas by Beethoven which followed were perhaps less engaging, written during the young composer’s studies with Salieri, when he learned from the master how to set the texts of the doyen of opera seria, Metastasio. Not quite ‘student exercises’ — ‘L’Amante impaziente’ (‘The Impatient Lover’), for example, appeared in two guises, one frivolous, the other pathetic — these songs lack genuine depth. Nevertheless, their simplicity of form and style did allow the unity between singer and accompanist to shine: unisons and echoes were effortlessly coordinated and intertwined in ‘Hoffnung (Dimmi ben mio)’(‘Hope (say, my love, you love me)’) and the more melancholy, pianissimo rendering of the lover’s impatience; a graceful, shared lyricism shaped ‘La partenza’ (‘The departure’). Throughout, Zobel sought to characterise and dramatise, his ‘scotch-snap’ heartbeat pulsing through ‘T’intendo, si, mio cor’ (‘My heart I hear you well’) and a tumult of arpeggio triplets conveying the buffoon-like impetuosity of the desperate inamorato.

The first half of the recital closed with DiDonato’s signature Rossini - the ‘Willow Song’ from Otello, with obbligato harp performed by Lucy Wakeford. DiDonato’s relaxed demeanour was revealed when, just as she drew breath, a mobile ‘phone interrupted proceedings: “It’s Otello,” she quipped, “Tell him it's not true.” Unfazed and undistracted, the purity and transcendence of her performance was spell-binding. Eager to make the most of her harpist’s presence, DiDonato offered an unscheduled encore before the interval — the heavenly prayer, ‘Guisto Ciel’, from Rossini's Maometto Secondo. The tranquility and sweetness conjured by singer and instrumentalist was truly unearthly; which did, however, raise the question of why DiDonato did not explore the potential of the harp’s sonorities in the opening Arie antiche

The second half of the recital ranged once more over favourite pastures and new terrain, as DiDonato convincingly made the case for a reconsideration and re-evaluation of nineteenth-century Italian art song. The melodic arcs and yearning cadences of Puccini, the rich harmonic palette of Richard Strauss, the shimmering textures of Debussy … all echo through the liriche da camera of Francesco Santoliquido. His ‘I Canti della Sera’ are operatic miniatures, scaling emotional peaks and troughs, and perfectly suited to DiDonato’s innate musical and dramatic expansiveness. ‘Tristezza crepuscolare’ (‘Twilight sadness’) allowed the mezzo to reveal the dark opulence of her lower register, as she effectively exploited the textual repetitions to build urgency and passion. Songs by Ildebrando Pizetti, Enrico Toselli, Stefano Donaudy and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco followed. DiDonato delighted in indulging her feeling for dramatic contrasts: a silky velvet hue evoked the loneliness of the lover who waits in vain at the close of Pizetti’s ‘Oscuro le ciel’ (‘The sky is dark’), while an effervescent impishness characterised Tedesco’s ‘Ballad’.

The final group of four songs imported the strains of Spain, France and Arabia to Italian shores. In Barbara Guiranna’s eerie ‘Canto arabo’ (‘Arab Song’), DiDonato relished the angular slips and slides, floating dreamily between the pitches of the ‘off-key’ scales; while in Arturo Buzzi-Peccia’s ‘Lolita’ (popularised by Caruso) and Vincenzo Di Chiara’s ‘La Spagnola’, her voice lushly over-spilled: singer, actress, communicator — her warmth, joy and exuberance was exhilarating,

Despite the heights already reached during the evening, two encores served merely to show how much more there is in DiDonato’s arsenal. A cheeky ‘Voi che sapete’ brought Mozart’s insouciant page instantly to life; last came ‘Tanti affetti’ from Rossini’s La Donna del Lago. Oddly, it was as if for the first time in this stunning recital we were permitted a glimpse of the full range of DiDonato’s vocal capabilities, the expanse of her tessitura, at both ends, the sparkle and prowess of her coloratura. A triumphant end which left the ecstatic audience eager for more.

Claire Seymour

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