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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Concert Review: Rowing With the Current

Joyce DiDonato sails into Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
We can talk about Joyce: La DiDonato in a publicity still.
Image courtesy Warner Music Group.
When Joyce DiDonato last gave a recital in New York, she sang on the upper level of a metal shop located next to Brooklyn's heavily polluted Gowanus Canal. At Tuesday night's Carnegie Hall recital, the second performance of her 2014 Perspectives series, the diva was in a much more opulent setting. However, waterways--in this case the canals of Venice, Italy--continued to play an important role.

This program, titled A Journey Through Venice, collected arias and art songs written in and inspired by that famous Italian city. The concert, with accompanist David Zobel, was bold and inventive, bridging the baroque arias of Antonio Vivaldi with the modern art songs of Reynaldo Hahn. Taking up a microphone to occasionally address the audience, Ms. DiDonato proved herself a  personable guide to this repertory, some of which is decidedly off the beaten path. (This concert was also the first in a series of live simulcasts on Medici.TV, and the stream is available here for the next three months.

Ms. DiDonato opened with Vivaldi, specifically two arias sung by the character Ippolita in Ercole su'l Termodont, the  composer's retelling of the Hercules legend. The first, "Onde chiare che sussurrate" featured limpid, liquid sound, with charming piano ornamentation that proved a perfect, silvery setting for the singer's sweet tone. It was followed by the searching and sensual "Amato ben," a carefully crafted aria, delicately delivered.

She followed with Cinq Mélodies 'de Venise', a detailed set of chansons by Gabriel Fauré. These beautiful songs are rich in post-Wagnerian harmony, shifting colors and shades. In the fourth of these, she finally opened up the full power of her instrument, achieving a sort of ecstasy at the song's climax. These songs are very much a product of the late 19th century, when the chromatic stamp of Wagner was hard to avoid. (The Tristan intervals appear in a clear fashion, announced in the piano accompaniment.)

The Fauré songs were followed by Rossini's La Regatta Venaziana, a product of Rossini's retirement years. These songs allowed Ms. DiDonato to engage her voice in rapid-fire singing against the colorful background of Venetian gondola races. The young heroine goes from sideline cheerleader to seductress in these humorous but very beautiful songs, which also show Rossini nodding  to Verdi with a dead-on parody of an aria from Il Trovatore.

The second half of the evening started with more Rossini, in a much more serious vein. "Assisa al piè d’un salice ... Deh, calma," Desdemona's "Willow Song" and following prayer from the composer's version of Otello, set entirely in Venice. This was the dramatic side of Ms. DiDonato, the singer who made Maria Stuarda a centerpiece of the 2012-13 Met season. Singing with bright notes shot through with a melancholy sense of dread, this was a thrilling, dramatic performance, making an excellent case for this long neglected opera's eventual return to the operatic stage.

The sufferings of Desdemona were followed by a another triptych of songs by English composer Michael Head, originally written for Dame Janet Baker. These songs taxed Ms. DiDonato's lower register, forcing her to open reserves of hidden power and sing with penetrating, serious tone. The singer's playful nature returned for five songs (from the set Venezia) by Reynaldo Hahn. T

These songs, particularly "Chè peca" and "L'avertimento" ended the evening on a buoyant note, sung in a gritty Venetian dialect with robust power and at times, mordant wit. A pair of encores followed: Rossini's boisterous Canzonetta spagnuola  and the Italian popular song Non ti scordar a me by Ernesto di Curtis, sung by Ms. DiDonato as she held a large boquet given by a grateful fan.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.