Amsterdam was the second stop on DiDonato’s currently ongoing concert tour, which is coupled with her latest album and titled In War & Peace — Harmony through Music. Extensive preparation attested to how much this undertaking means for the singer. Each patron was handed a card with a heartfelt message from her, and an invitation to answer the question, posed in sixteen languages: “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?”. When the public trickled into the half-lit hall, DiDonato was already on the stage, where she remained the whole time, acting and interacting with her fellow performers. She has eloquently explained her goals for this project in the media: to find peace in a time of unfettered hate speech and violence, to rediscover hope smothered by despair. Whether her choice of music, atmospherically enhanced by lighting, video and dance, achieved this for her audience would depend on the individual, but no one could deny her impressive display of prowess and involvement. She is an artist at the zenith of her powers, wielding her technical tools with surgical skill and maximum expressive impact.
On the program were familiar Baroque gems, orchestral interludes performed by Il Pomo d’Oro, and two rediscovered arias by Neapolitan composers Leonardo Leo and Niccolò Jommelli. The concert was thematically split into two, War before and Peace after the break. In an asymmetrical gunmetal-colored gown, her face and neck livid with stylized wounds, DiDonato kicked off War with Handel’s aria “Scenes of Horror, Scenes of Woe” from Jephtha. She put such intensity into the dark premonitions that one wondered how she could sustain the pressure during successive numbers. She did. Surrounded by video projections and light effects suggesting explosions and aerial bombings, she was an ever-deepening vortex of emotion. During an orchestral arrangement of Gesualdo’s Tristis est anima mea, originally a vocal setting of Christ’s fearful prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, DiDonato lay consumed by silent suffering. In Leo’s “Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro!” Andromache’s music swings back and forth from rapid rage to maternal tenderness. In the torridness of this aria and Handel’s “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” from Agrippina, DiDonato drove her voice to its expressive limits. Her high notes were at times so piercing it seemed as if she were about to lose control. This was, however, just an illusion. In her fierceness she retained technical command, effortlessly stretching and embellishing Agrippina’s tortured lines. For the two mournful arias by Purcell and Handel, deeply saturated with feeling, Maxim Emelyanychev, leading from the harpsichord, scaled down the ensemble to a delicate whisper. It was the perfect accompaniment to the ghostly diminuendos on the repeated “remember me” of “When I Am Laid in Earth”. Never has Dido sounded so desperately close to death. Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” was taken very slowly, closing the first half with a trace of hope symbolized by projected falling petals.
The theme of hope in captivity was picked up in the second part, Peace, with “They Tell Us that You Mighty Powers” from Purcell’s unfinished The Indian Queen. Singer and orchestra struck an ideally soothing tone in this charming, unadorned melody. DiDonato offered her antidote to violence and darkness dressed in liquid silver by Vivienne Westwood, having replaced her painted wounds with sprays of flowers. More than through the content, she administered the medicine through her musical brilliance, fully on display in the Handel arias. Ravishing tone in “Crystal Streams in Murmurs Flowing” from Susanna, dazzling coloratura in Cleopatra’s triumphant “Da tempeste il legno infranto”, and fabulous chirping and warbling in “Augelletti, che cantate” from Rinaldo, twinned with Anna Fusek’s baffling virtuosity on the recorder. Besides hope and joy, there was also remembrance. Manuel Palazzo danced a dignified solo to the hypnotically rippling chords of Arvo Pärt’s Da pacem Domine, composed after the 2004 Madrid train bombings in memory of the victims. Although Emelyanychev could have ratcheted up the exuberance in “Da tempeste”, as well as in the closing aria, Jommelli’s “Par che di Giubilo”, the musicians were otherwise exemplary — rhythmically even, shapely in phrasing and excellent in the obbligato solos. DiDonato acknowledged the richly earned ovation with an even more ebullient and vocally free reprise of the intricate Jommelli. After a short, grateful speech she then performed a deeply intimate, quietly hopeful “Morgen!” by Richard Strauss. On this extraordinary emotional journey, DiDonato spared neither herself nor her audience, and the rewards were great, truly great.
Performers and program:
Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Ralf Pleger, director; Henning Blum, lighting, Manuel Palazzo, choreography and dance; Yousef Iskander, video; Il Pomo d’Oro, Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor and harpsichord.
Handel: “Scenes of Horror, Scenes of Woe” (from Jephtha, HWV 70); Leo: “Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro!” (from L'Andromaca); De Cavalieri: Sinfonia (from La rappresentatione di anima e di corpo); Purcell: Chacony in G minor, Z 730; Purcell: “When I Am Laid in Earth” (from Dido and Aeneas, Z 626); Handel: “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” (from Agrippina, HWV 6); Gesualdo: Tristis est anima mea; Handel: “Lascia ch'io pianga mia cruda sorte” (from Rinaldo, HWV 7a); Purcell: “They Tell Us that You Mighty Powers” (from The Indian Queen, Z 630); Handel: Crystal Streams in Murmurs Flowing (from Susanna, HWV 66); Handel: “Da tempeste il legno infranto” (from Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17);
Pärt: Da pacem Domine; Handel: “Augelletti, che cantate” (from Rinaldo, HWV 7a); Jommelli: “Par che di Giubilo” (from Attilio Regolo); Strauss: “Morgen!”, Op. 27, no. 4.
Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. Saturday, 19th November, 2016