When did you first hear Joyce DiDonato? I first heard her in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, at the Metropolitan Opera. She was Stéphano (not much of a role, frankly, and not even in Shakespeare’s play). I was shocked—shocked at the excellence of the singing. I left the opera house thinking and talking about the Stéphano, which is very odd, I assure you.
Like the world at large, I have heard DiDonato—a mezzo-soprano from Kansas—many, many times since, in a huge amount of repertoire. There is almost nothing she doesn’t sing. And she sings a wildly, wonderfully varied repertoire in this concert from the Metropolitan Opera. It is part of the series called “Met Stars Live in Concert.” I reviewed a concert by Lise Davidsen, the Norwegian soprano, two weeks ago (here). DiDonato’s concert will be available, online, through September 25.
It is performed in Bochum, Germany (the Ruhr Valley), in a converted industrial space. That is, the industrial space has been made into a theatrical venue. DiDonato has two accompanists, so to speak: the pianist Carrie-Ann Matheson and the Baroque ensemble Il pomo d’oro. The ensemble is named after an opera by Antonio Cesti (1623–69). In fact, DiDonato sings an aria by Cesti, but not from Il pomo d’oro: from Orontea.
Interspersed throughout the concert are remarks: remarks by the singer from the stage; remarks from others in a central studio. There is also a discussion—previously taped—between DiDonato, Sister Helen Prejean, and Kenyatta Hughes. Sister Helen, you will recall, is the author of Dead Man Walking, from which Jake Heggie composed an opera. Kenyatta Hughes is a composer who is also an ex-prisoner (murder).
The remarks throughout the concert will not be to everyone’s taste. They can be taken or left. The main thing is the music.
At one point in her concert, DiDonato sings “Voi che sapete”—Cherubino’s aria from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro—and then “La Vie en rose.” She engages in some talk about Cherubino, Edith Piaf, and La Belle Époque. I think it’s meant to be sexy. I couldn’t quite tell. But it hardly matters—because DiDonato sings both “Voi che sapete” and “La Vie en rose” to perfection (not a word I use lightly, I assure you). Those are very different pieces, in very different styles (not to mention different languages). But DiDonato is exemplary in each.
Which I guess entitles her to say whatever she wants.
This concert program has themes, which are beloved of administrators, critics, and possibly musicologists. Part I is called “Loss and Separation.” Part II is “The Restorative Power of Nature.” And Part III is “Unity and Love.” In my experience, the public doesn’t care about themes. They want good music, intelligently presented. And this DiDonato concert is a wonderful variety show, themes aside.
It is definitely a show, not just a concert or recital. It is lights, camera, action. DiDonato does some acting, especially in Didon’s Final Scene (from Les Troyens, by Berlioz). She sings from her knees. Then she goes right into a Mahler song: the immortal, transcendent “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” She sings this song sitting on the floor. Go figure (or simply listen).
At one point, the curtain is pulled back, and we see something not meant for the public, I think. When the broadcast returns from the studio to the stage, DiDonato is saying, “I was singing, I was singing, tell them not to freak out, okay?” Then, with considerable tension, she asks the musicians to give her some notes, because she is about to sing “Shenandoah,” unaccompanied (in E major). They do.
After these tense and, frankly, discomforting moments, DiDonato sings “Shenandoah” like an angel: an Appalachian (or Shenandoahan) angel.
Included on the program is a new piece by the aforementioned Kenyatta Hughes: “I Dream a World,” a setting of the poem by another Hughes, Langston. The song is jazzy, bluesy, New Agey, and nice.
A word about Carrie-Ann Matheson, the pianist, before I rhapsodize (further) about the singer. Matheson has an exceptional ability to play limpidly. And to play lyrically. In singerly fashion, if you like. This is a great gift for any pianist, whether she is accompanying singers or not.
Okay. Like other critics, I have devoted thousands and tens of thousands of words to Joyce DiDonato in the last fifteen years, and I can’t give you any more. What is singing? Voice. Technique. Mind. Soul. Musical intelligence, or “musicality.” Joyce DiDonato falters in no category.
In this concert, the voice is in very good shape. There is the desired vibrato, and there are desired straight, or straighter, tones. There is richness, and there is (intentional) starkness. Occasionally, some unwanted thinness creeps into the voice, but this is inconsequential.
Technique? DiDonato has always been a picture of security, and it is no different here. She can do whatever she wants with her singing. She is unhindered by technical shortcomings; she can interpret at will. She is “huggy” in cavatina—she hugs the line, creamily—and she is sure-footed in cabaletta. To one Baroque aria—“Dopo notte atra e funesta,” from Handel’s Ariodante—she imparts her trademark hint of jazz.
She has a musician’s ability to slip into the skin of a composer, character, or culture. She sounds Spanish in Spanish music, French in French music, etc. Every musician worth his salt, really, is a chameleon. A musician’s understanding includes empathy (same with a writer’s).
You and I could quibble with interpretation in this concert. When could we not? I found the Mahler song a bit slow, and even a little stilted. But, oh, those long, long breaths and lines!
As I was watching the concert, I thought of something that Beverly Sills said, many years ago. We got on the subject of reputation, somehow—hers, in particular. She said something like the following: “In the future, if they ask, ‘What was all the fuss about?,’ they can listen to the recordings. Then they will know what all the fuss was about.” Assuming that this concert from Bochum, Germany, is preserved, it will stand as a document of what Joyce DiDonato could do.
Look, she’s one of the greatest singers of all time. Once she is safely retired or dead, no one will doubt it, for a second. Might as well embrace it now. It has been obvious for years.