Most opera professionals, including the individuals who do the casting for
major houses, despair of finding performers who can match historical standards
of singing in operas such as Aïda. Yet a concert performance in Aspen
gives a glimmer of hope. It was led by four younger singers who may be part of
the future of Verdi singing in America and the world.
Three years ago I made what may have been my single worst decision in a half
century of attending opera. I wasn’t paying close attention when some
conference organizers in Aix-en-Provence offered me two tickets to the premiere
of a new opera. I opted instead for what seemed like a sure thing:
William Christie conducting some Charpentier.
That’s The Conquest of Mexico, an historical music drama composed in 1991 by German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952). But wait. Wolfgang Rihm construed a few sentences of Artaud’s La Conquête du Mexique (1932) mixed up with bits of Aztec chant and bits of poem(s) by Mexico’s Octavio Paz (d. 1998) to make a libretto.
This Salzburg Norma is not new news. This superb production was first seen at the Salzburg Festival’s springtime Whitsun Festival in 2013 with this same cast. It will now travel to a few major European cities.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
Joyce DiDonato brought her Drama Queens tour to the Barbican Hall last night, 6 February 2012. Accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco, directed by Dmitry Sinkovsky, she enabled us to hear a wide range of arias by mainly Italian baroque composers from Monteverdi to Handel, by way of Porta, Cesti, Orlandini and Hasse.
Joyce DiDonato, Il Complesso Barroco, Dimitry Sinkovsky
Loosely linked by the Drama Queens theme — all the arias were sung by female characters under some sort of pressure, the concert was really a way of dusting off music which has been neglected, partly because of its technical demands. DiDonato gave us an evening of high drama and superb vocal technique in her own inimitable way.
Before I cover the concert in detail, I had better say something about the presentation. Though this was purely a concert, DiDonato sang everything from memory and presentation was highly dramatic, with some items running on from the previous one without applause. She wore an amazing red frock designed for her by Vivienne Westwood Couture (in fact the designer Vivienne Westwood can often be seen attending concerts at the Barbican Centre). It was such a complex and stunning piece of tailoring that it was difficult to believe that the fluid creation in which DiDonato first appeared was in fact the same dress as the highly structured, paniered neo-18th century frock in which she closed the concert. It was very much a modern evocation of 18th century style.
In one sense, Joyce DiDonato’s art is very similar to this; she remakes the 17th and 18th century music in her own style and image. She has the technical resources to perform these arias and does so in a very particular style. In the 18th century singers would remake arias or whole operas in their own image, and DiDonato is no different in the way she brings her highly evocative, stylised art to each aria.
This music was written for some of the finest singers of the day and requires a high degree of technical expertise to bring it off. Composers like Porta, Hasse and to a certain extent Handel, wrote arias which showed off a singers technical prowess to the most flattering extent. We must be grateful that singers of the calibre of Joyce DiDonato are prepared to take the time and learn this music and bring the arias to life. (For those Londoners interested in taking this further, note that one of Hasse’s operas will be performed complete at this year’s London Handel Festival).
DiDonato started with "Intorno all’idol mio" from Cesti’s Orontea. Antonio Cesti (1623 - 1669) was one of the most significant 17th century Italian opera composers of his generation, perhaps best known for his opera Il Pomo d’oro. His opera Orontea premiered in Venice in 1649. In Orontea’s act 2 aria she sings to her sleeping beloved. DiDonato was accompanied by just five instruments, allowing us to really appreciate the way Cesti’s vocal line intertwined with the two violins. Structurally the aria was far more flexible of form than 18th century Italian opera. DiDonato took advantage of this, giving a flexible, highly vivid account of the piece. Her voice had quite a rich depth to it which, combined with her beautiful sense of line, made for highly sensual listening.
Il Complesso Barocco, directed from the violin by Dmitry Sinkovsky, then played the sinfonia from Tolomeo by Domenico Scarlatti (1685 - 1757). This was in the standard fast-slow-fast form, with the band giving a crisply vivid performance. Here, and elsewhere, I did worry about they way the gusts of dynamics blew around the piece in a style which was highly dramatic but seemed a little too modern in sensibility.
"Disprezzata Regina" from L’Incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1642) was the earliest item in the programme, and perhaps one of the best known. DiDonato was accompanied by just continuo (harpsichord, theorbo and bass) but the use of two cellos and a double bass on the bass line gave it a strength and emphasis which seemed a bit overdone.
DiDonato projected the text in an ideal manner, using Monteverdi’s vocal line fluidly and flexibly with a final section which was wonderfully incisive, as she spat out her accusations against the gods. DiDonato’s Ottavia was noble in her suffering, with none of the scheming bitch that some singers bring to the role.
The aria "Sposa, son disprezzati" from Merope (1734) by Germiniano Giacomelli (1692 - 1740) was so popular that Vivaldi included it in his pasticcio Bajazet performed in 1735 in Verona. In the aria Irene bemoans the fact that she loves her unfaithful husband, except that the text sung was from Vivaldi’s opera not the text Giacomelli set. Whatever, it was a lovely piece with a long slow vocal line over a string accompaniment which was slow but toe-tappingly catchy in the manner of Vivaldi.
Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin and strings, RV242 ‘Per Pisendel’ was written for Johann Georg Pisendel, the violinist director of the Dresden court orchestra. Pisendel was a very fine violinist and Vivaldi’s solo part must have given him much to do to show this off. In the graceful first movement the brilliant solo part was mainly accompanied by just continuo leaving the tutti violins to comment on the sidelines. The slow movement was one of Vivaldi’s glorious long breathed melodies over a simple accompaniment leading to a final movement which went with a swing and provided the soloist with plenty of opportunities to shine. This Dimitry Sinkovsky did, treating us to some stunning playing.
Part one ended with "Da torbida procella" from Berenice by Giuseppe Maria Orlandini (1676 - 1760). This was a simile aria, the singer is tossed like a ship in stormy seas but with the beloved as her pole star to guide her. This was very much the diva having fun, sparking runs cascaded with clarity and apparent east, giving a lovely vivid picture of the happy Berenice.
Part two opened with an aria from a serenata by Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) written early in his career, in Naples in the 1720’s. The premiere included the superstar castrato Farinelli, who sang the role of Cleopatra. In the aria Cleopatra explains that death holds no terrors for her. DiDonato did so in a highly commanding manner with some superbly executed passagework. Il Complesso Barocco’s crisp accompaniment again had dynamics full of bulges and rushed climaxes.
Next came perhaps the best known aria in the concert, "Piangero" from Handel’s Giulio Cesare in which Cleopatra lamented her fate. Handel (1685 - 1759) wrote the opera in 1724 for the castrato Senesino and Francesca Cuzzoni. DiDonato had entire command of the aria’s lovely long lines, with the middle section vividly dramatic before the da capo was sung in hushed, white tones on a thread of voice - very effective if not necessarily historically informed practice. But what worried me most was the feeling that she had to do something with each phrase, when leaving well alone would have worked well.
The orchestra followed this with the Passacaglia from act 2 of Handel’s Radamisto giving the work a nice bounce and showcasing some fine solo playing.
Giovanni Porta (1675 - 1755) worked all over Europe including in London in 1720. His last opera was Ifigenia en Aulide written in 1738. Ifigenia’s farewell to her mother was a slow piece which Porta gave something of a lilt to. DiDonato sang the elaborate vocal line in a rather touching manner, the result was richly textured and very moving. One interesting feature, at the da capo we heard the entire da capo played though with a solo violin on the voice part, before the voice came in, an effective and imaginative touch.
Next came two movements of ballet music by Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714 - 1787), a composer who wrote his own setting of the Iphigenia story. But here we heard two graceful movements from the ballet music from his 1777 Parisian opera Armide featuring some very fine flute playing.
Then finally "Brilla nell’alma" from Handel’s Alessandro. Written in 1726, it was the first opera he wrote for the pairing of divas Faustina Bordone and Francesca Cuzzoni. The aria was written for Bordone in the character of Rossane; in it Rossane is happy, very happy. And she shows this by singing an incredible sequence of runs, which DiDonato performed at an amazingly brisk tempo. Despite the technical challenges she looked as if she was having fun, a radiant end to the concert.
We were treated to three encores. First a little gem, "Lasica mi piangere" from Reinhard Keiser’s 1715 opera Fredegunda. Then another aria from Orlandini’s Berenice this time a vivid revenge aria, with lively accompaniment and brilliant vocals. Then finally the da capo of "Brilla nell’alma" from Handel’s Alessandro again, this time with even more elaborate ornaments.
I have to confess that I was in two minds about the whole Joyce DiDonato road show phenomenon - buy the CD, buy her previous CD’s, buy the printed music, have DiDonato sign your CD, but it is part and parcel of marketing a CD nowadays. And if such concert tours bring us music as stunningly performed as this, in highly imaginative programmes, then I can’t really complain.
Joyce DiDonato (soprano); Il Complesso Barocco; Dimitry Sinkovsky (director);
Antonio Cesti - Intorno all’idol mio (Orontea);
Domenico Scarlatti - Sinfonia (Tolomeo);
Claudio Monteverdi - Disprezzata regina (L’Incoronazione di Poppea);
Geminiano Giacomelli - Sposo, son disprezzata (Merope);
Antonio Vivaldi - Concerto for violin and strings, RV 242 ‘Per Pisendel’;
Giuseppe Maria Orlandini - Da torbida procella (Berenice);
Johann Adolf Hasse - Morete col fiero aspetto (Antonio e Cleopatra);
George Frideric Handel - Piangero (Giulio Cesare);
George Frideric Handel - Passacaglia (Radamisto);
Giovanni Porta - Madre diletta, abbracciami (Ifigenia in Aulide);
Christoph Willibald von Gluck - Ballet Music (Armide)
George Frideric Handel - Brilla nell’alma (Alessandro)
Wednesday 6 February 2013;
Barbican Centre, London