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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Concert Review: A Warrior For Her Art

Joyce DiDonato sings of war and peace.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Joyce DiDonato sings of war and peace at Carnegie Hall, with dancer Manuel Palazzo (right.)
Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 courtesy Carnegie Hall press department.
The Carnegie Hall Perspectives series provides artists with a blank slate, a freedom to mount dream projects upon the hallowed boards of the Perelman Stage. On Thursday night, it was Joyce DiDonato's turn. The mezzo-soprano offered In War & Peace, a program of baroque arias with period ensemble Il Pomo D'Oro. To it, she added back projections, rock concert lighting and interpretive dance, all elements as foreign to this staid environment as the cutting ring of a cell phone.

Luckily the phones stayed silent for this recital, which opened in a dimmed concert hall, with dancer Manuel Palazzo kowtowing, shirtless upon the stage. The object of his veneration was Ms. DiDonato herself, stock-still on a dais. Her hair was up and frosted in regal fashion, and her features accented with slashes of silver makeup that suggested '70s glam rock. An ethereal silver concert gown billowed, enhanced with glittering wraps that looked like watered silk. Eventually the lights dimmed further, the orchestra took the stage and the music began.

The expansive program alternated arias from Handel and Purcell's operas and oratorios. The first half, War opened with "Scenes of horror, scenes of woe" with Ms. DiDonato's gift for ornamentation accentuating the insanity and trauma of the character she played. Maxim Emelyanychevled the period orchestra from the harpsichord, with firm staccato rhythms and a powerful forward drive. Battlefield images overhead enhanced the martial nature of this aria, taken from a lesser-known Handel oratorio.

The more familiar Handel and Purcell numbers were alternated, accented by rarities from two composers from Naples. Neopolitan baroque music is a passion of Ms. DiDonato's, and she applied her fiery stage presence to "Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro!" from the opera Andromaca, chronicling the distress of the widow of the Trojan hero Hector. The evening's first instrumental interlude followed, with numbers from the pens of Emilio de' Cavalieri (one of the first opera composers) and the more familiar Henry Purcell.

This set the stage for the centerpiece of the first half: Dido's Lament from Dido and Aeneas. This mournful finale is not what you think of in baroque opera, its slow, sinuous melody looking forward to the creations of Mozart and Schubert. Here, Ms. DiDonato's voice and regal command of the stage served well, along with one of the watery silver wraps, used as a mourning shroud. She then cut loose with "Pensieri, voi mi tormentate", playing the Roman emperor Nero's mad mother Agrippina to the utter hilt in an excerpt from the Handel opera of the same name.

As the title Peace suggests, the second half was a more placid affair. Here, listeners found Ms. DiDonato using her remarkable gifts in the service of exultation rather than bloodshed. Still, there was a manic energy as she sang ""Augelletti che cantata" from Rinaldo (with one of the violinists doubling on soprano recorder) and the barn-burning "Da tempeste il legno infranto". This aria from the ever-popular Giulio Cesare was the popular hit of the night.

Ms. DiDonato closed the concert with the evening's other "discovery", the aria "Par che di giubilo" from Niccòlo Jomelli, the teacher of the aforementioned Leonardo Leo and one of the finest Neapolitan composrs. This joyful, dazzling aria was given two performances, one to ring down the concert and another to reward those who stayed for the encores. The last of these was introduced with a long rumination from Ms DiDonato about the power of music and the evening's subject matter. Her performance of "Morgen", from the pen of Richard Strauss proved that her words about the power of music were eminently correct. 

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