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Joyce DiDonato. Stella di Napoli. [Photo by Pari Dukovic]
12 Sep 2014

Joyce DiDonato starts Wigmore Hall new season

There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.

Joyce DiDonato - Wigmore Hall Season Opening Gala

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Joyce DiDonato. Stella di Napoli. [Photo by Pari Dukovic]


And, if the second half of the programme - 20th-century American classics with the odd folky diversion - did feel a little like a prolonged encore (which was followed by three further suavely delivered numbers complete with mischievous banter and musical high-jinks), this did not lessen the musical and theatrical accomplishment or the evident delight of the Wigmore Hall audience, although I confess to feeling a bit of a sugar-rush …

We began in loftier realms, with Haydn’s dramatic cantata Arianna a Naxos. DiDonato slipped effortlessly into the persona of the troubled woman who has been abandoned by her lover, Theseus - the latter has sailed off to embark upon great deeds - conveying Ariadne’s passion, anger, frustration and despair with directness and impact. Pappano, too - and not surprisingly for an esteemed conductor of opera - revealed his theatrical nous, injecting a light-hearted, almost playful tone into the introductory bars and thus conveying Ariadne’s delusions; throughout the cantata Pappano captured the expressive quality of the accompaniment, the dynamic contrasts and idiomatic textures suggesting the engaging tone qualities of the fortepiano for which the music was composed (Haydn had intended to orchestrate the work but this re-scoring was never completed).

In Haydn’s first recitative, which depicts Ariadne’s realisation of her desertion and impatience for Theseus’s return, DiDonato mingled insouciance with flashes of displeasure. The subsequent aria, ‘Dove sei, mio bel Tesoro?’ (Where are you, my treasure?), allowed her to indulge her sensuous tone, but lyrical effulgence gave way to more impassioned utterances, as Ariadne’s anxieties refused to be quelled. DiDonato’s control of the fragmented phrasing was impressive and both performers used the unexpected key changes to dramatic effect. In the subsequent recitative, ‘Ma, a chi parlo?’ (But to whom am I speaking?), the mezzo-soprano modulated vocal timbre in response to the unpredictable changes of tempo and mood. Pappano’s accompaniment was a perfect embodiment of orchestral accompagnato - I could hear the varied instrumental colours and sense the acumen of a sympathetic and insightful conductor.

DiDonato’s comfortable and wide registral compass brought poise and dignity to the Larghetto, ‘Ah, che morir vorrei’ (Ah, how I should like to die); but, in the concluding Presto she allowed her indignation to erupt: the repetitions of the phrase ‘Chi tanto amai’ (He whom I loved) acquired intensity with each restatement.

Two Rossini arias followed. ‘Beltà crudele’ (Cruel beauty) drew forth a warmer vocal tone from DiDonato (although here, and elsewhere during the evening, I felt that there was an occasional drift sharp-wards in the more animated, forceful upper-range phrases), and the long lyrical phrases were engagingly shaped and impressively sustained. The Italian diction was excellent - a professional linguist was my guest for the evening, so I can declare this with assurance! - especially in ‘La Danza’
in which the singer scarcely has time to draw breath. Here, too, DiDonato’s vocal agility and comic timing were put to impressive use.

Four songs from the early 20th century by the Italian composer Francesco Santoliquido were affectingly delivered. ‘L’assiolo canta’ (The horned owl sings) show-cased DiDonato’s voluptuous middle register and Pappano’s fluent communicative skills, as contrasts of figuration and timbre were used to expressive effect. ‘Tristesse crepuscolare’ (Twilight sadness) was particularly dramatic and impulsive, while ‘L’incontro’ (The encounter) permitted a more serious, subdued ambience. Ernesto De Curtis’s ‘Non ti scordar di me!’ (Don’t forget me!) concluded the first half of the recital, DiDonato’s sympathetic vocal colourings and inflections, combined with Pappano’s unassuming yet detailed piano commentary, easing us in relaxed fashion into the interval.

Joie de vivre probably sums up the post-interval sequence of American songs by familiar and less well-known song-scribes: Stephen Foster, Jerome Kern, William Bolcom et al. DiDonato - sporting her second glamorous Vivienne Westwood gown of the evening - was in her element, and Pappano matched her for humour and spirit. The impressionist textures of Foster’s ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ were hypnotically engaging; while in Kern’s ‘The Siren’s Song’ from Leave it to Jane (1917) Pappano’s lilting transitions and careful handling of the contrasting registers and airy textures spoke eloquently; DiDonato’s pianissimo conclusion brought a note of pathos and nostalgia to this song. In ‘Go little boat’ from Oh, My Dear (Kern, 1918) DiDonato revealed a kaleidoscopic array of vocal colours above Pappano’s full, profound chordal textures; next, the folk inflections of the Irish composer Havelock Nelson’s ‘Lovely Jimmie’ were winningly engaging.

Celius Dougherty’s Five Views of Love saw a shift to ‘cabaret’: theatrical props - thick-rimmed specs and a dusty leather-bound tome - supplemented DiDonato’s extrovert rendering of ‘Love in the Dictionary’ (echoes of Britten/Auden’s ‘Tell Me the Truth About Love’?), while spoken interjections enlivened Kern’s ‘Life upon the wicked stage’ (from Show Boat) - perhaps Pappano should swap the orchestral pit for the stage? The rhythmic complexities and irregularities of William Bolcom’s ‘Amor’ from Twelve Cabaret Songs (1977-8) were superbly executed, while the repeating rhythmic motif of Villa-Lobos’s ‘Food for thought’ (from Magdalena, 1948) was shaped to create an imperious air. The latter two songs were preceded by a wonderful interpretation of Jerome Moross’s ‘Lazy Afternoon’ (from The Golden Apple, 1955). Concluding the prescribed programme was a sequence of three songs sub-titled ‘Compulsions’: Kern’s ‘Can’t help lovin’ dat man (Show Boat, 1927) was enriched by Pappano’s superb piano voicing and intense rhetorical flourishes, while in Richard Rodgers' ‘My funny valentine’ (Babes in Arms, 1937) DiDonato made wonderful use of a veiled tone and low, husky register.

Whatever she sang - from Haydn’s Italianate cantata to ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ - communication and immediacy were central to DiDonato’s purpose; and she was matched and aided by Pappano, whose innate ability to embody musical sentiment and instinctive desire to communicate were wonderfully revealed during the evening. It went down a treat with the Wigmore aficionados - and if I felt as if I’d over-dosed on saccharine at the close, this did not diminish the technical and expressive power of the performance.

Claire Seymour


Haydn, Arianna a Naxos; Rossini, ‘Beltà crudele’, ‘La danza’; Santoliquido ‘L'assiolo canta’, ‘Alba di luna sul bosco’, ‘Tristezza crepuscolare’, L'incontro’; de Curtis, ‘Non ti scordar di me’; Foster, ‘Beautiful dreamer’ (arr. David Krane; )Kern, ‘Siren's Song’ from Leave it to Jane, ‘Go little boat’ from Oh, My Dear! ; Nelson, ‘Lovely Jimmie’; Dougherty, ‘Love in the Dictionary’; Kern, ‘Life upon the wicked stage’ from Show Boat; Moross, ‘Lazy Afternoon’ from The Golden Apple’ William Bolcom, ‘Amor from 12 Cabaret Songs’; Villa-Lobos, ‘Food for Thought’ from Magdalena: A Musical Adventure’; Kern, ‘Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man’ from Show Boat Trad. (arr. David Krane); Rodgers & Hart, ‘My Funny Valentine’ from Babes in Arms; Robert Lowry, ‘How Can I Keep From Singing?’ (arr. David Krane). Joyce DiDonato mezzo-soprano, Sir Antonio Pappano piano.

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