Sensational singing wins out over campy theatrics in DiDonato’s “harmony” program

December 11, 2016
Joyce DiDonato performed "In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music" Friday night at the Harris Theater.

Joyce DiDonato performed “In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music” Friday night at the Harris Theater.

As audience members entered the Harris Theater Friday night for Joyce DiDonato’s show it was clear that this was not going to be your everyday vocal recital.

The celebrated mezzo-soprano, clad in a magnificent black gown, was already sitting at the back of a darkly lit stage. For more than twenty minutes as the audience filed in and found their seats, the singer sat unblinking and completely still, as did a reclining male dancer near the front of the stage. Clearly, this event was going to be an Important Artistic Statement.

That set the tone for the evening, one in which DiDonato’s stunning performance of Baroque arias won out over a presentation that veered from weird museum installation to surreal diva art.

In a long, meandering speech at the end of the evening, DiDonato explained that in the wake of the Paris terror attacks of 2015, her planned recording and tour project of a Baroque program didn’t seem important enough on its own terms. Noting that so much Baroque music has to do with armed hostilities or pastoral calm, she decided to turn the project into a broader movement and plea for world peace, titled, “In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music.”

No one can doubt DiDonato’s sincerity and admirable intentions. (She also indicated that the tension between darkness and light had some significance in her personal life as well.) Yet there was more than a whiff of self-referential pretentiousness about both the trappings and the presentation. The program book contains answers to her query, “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?” from several colleagues (Riccardo Muti, Alfred Brendel and Janet Baker) as well as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and outgoing Harris Theater president Michael Tiknis, among others. In an envelope given to all audience members (“A message to you, from Joyce”), DiDonato says she hopes the show “will inspire you to reflect on your own life to see if, perhaps, there exists a bit more space for Peace.” She encourages audience members to write a response to her question in the enclosed envelope and “become part of a simple yet mighty exhibition for Peace.” What if you just came to hear her sing?

A similar sense of grandiosity permeated the presentation, directed by Ralf Pleger, which was divided into two parts (“WAR” and “PEACE”) with arias and non-vocal items performed attacca with no break.

The staging, with distracting projections and strobe lights, attempts to provide some narrative connection for each of the evening’s sections with little success. A bare-chested male dancer (Manuel Palazzo, also credited as choreographer), cavorts about the singer, casting admiring glances at her and, later in his own solo, throwing rose petals around the stage. At one point singer, dancer and an androgynous female flute player indulge in an awkward pastoral pas de trois.

For all her acknowledged gifts of characterization in opera, DiDonato’s attempts to dramatize each half largely fell flat. In the Peace section, she merely grinned a lot and sashayed around the stage. Her War makeup and overwrought gestures verged on high camp, recalling the late days of Norma Desmond.

Never mind. Most people came to hear DiDonato sing, and on that front, she more than delivered the goods, with stellar vocal artistry that pushed the show’s sillier elements into the background.

The American mezzo-soprano’s technical arsenal is as complete and close to perfection as it gets. DiDonato is at the top of her game these days and one can go a lifetime without hearing these demanding Baroque arias thrown off with this kind of refulgent tone, seamless agility and immaculate technique.

From the tempestuous opener, “Scenes of horror, scenes of woe” from Handel’s Jeptha, DiDonato blazed through the virtuosic items with fiery dramatic conviction. In both familiar warlike showpieces from Handel’s Agrippina (“Pensieri, voi mi tormentate”) and less familiar arias (“Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro!” from Leonardo Leo’s Andromaca), she handled all the coloratura runs, roulades and vocal leaps with athletic vocal prowess.

Yet the singer also brought moving expression to the more intimate arias. Rarely will one hear Dido’s Lament sung with such emotional depth and rapt simplicity. Nor will one likely ever experience “Lascia ch’io pianga”(from Handel’s Rinaldo) sung with such beauty of tone or suffused with such melancholy depth.

In addition to showing himself a nimble player on the Baroque cornetto, conductor Maxim Emelyanychev drew consistently energized playing from Il Pomo d’Oro. In addition to alertly supporting their soloist, the chamber orchestra displayed tangy asperity with their period instruments yet blended together with a warmly ingratiating corporate sound in non-vocal items from De Cavalieri, Purcell, Gesualdo and Arvo Part. 

Joseph Jommelli’s “Par che di giublio” from Attilio Regolo was a suitable finale, the brilliant vocal fireworks thrown off in exuberant fashion. DiDonato closed the evening with a “hopeful” rendition of Richard Strauss’s “Morgen.”

Joyce DiDonato repeats the program 8 p.m. December 15 at Carnegie Hall.

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