Joyce DiDonato (Mezzo soprano & executive producer)
Director – Ralf Pleger
Lighting Designer – Henning Blum
Dancer/Choreographer – Manuel Palazzo
Video Designer – Yousef Iskandar
Il Pomo d’Oro
Maxim Emelyanychev (Director)
The idea of concept albums and recitals are not new. Cecilia Bartoli is probably the foremost exponent although there was the ill-advised Prom concert last year featuring Alice Coote and a bath. Less said about that the better.
It was inevitable that Joyce DiDonato would at some point embark on a ‘concept’ herself. There is no denying her heartfelt and deep devotion and commitment, and combined with the sheer level of her musicianship and musical intelligence the idea is more than appealing. If any musician can call for revolution – as she did at the end of the entire performance – then it is she.
The musicianship – the vivacity, the pathos, the verve the tragedy – was all more or less there. DiDonato’s formidable talent combined with a genuine passion for the music itself makes her a compelling and intelligent performer. Each aria was a vehicle for a range of very emotions and in some cases breathtaking technique from the very beginning.
In the first half, the tortured souls of Handel’s Jephtha in Scenes of horror and Andromaca in Leo’s Prendi quell ferro were exquisitely counterbalanced by heartrending performances of Lascia ch’io pianga and Dido’s Lament. In the latter Barbara Bonney’s rendition remains a favourite – but whereas Bonney is a queen, DiDonato is very much the abandoned woman. After the interval two Handel arias – the beautiful and oft-overlooked Crystal stream in murmurs flowing from Susanna and Augelletti, che cantata – were beautifully off-set by an almost-coquettish Da tempeste and a suitably jubilant Par che di giubilo from Jommelli’s Attilio Regolo. One small gripe? Being robbed of Agrippina’s Pensieri in its entirety.
Il Pomo d’Oro performed the instrumental numbers with confidence if not entirely the distinctiveness that I’ve heard from them before. The exception was Pärt’s Da pacem, Domine – a piece I was more than happy to be reacquainted with.
So why, for me at least, didn’t it work?
I think because ultimately it was a ‘concept’ that DiDonato didn’t need. As well as being a consummate performer, the mezzo is set apart from many others by being an incredible actor. In countless recitals, staged and concert performances she convincingly inhabits the characters she is portraying. But more than that, she draws the listener into a sound and imagined world without the aid of props.
At the Barbican what we got was a layer of artifice that didn’t add, but rather distracted from the recital. Especially, I am afraid to say, Palazzo. His cavorting in the Pärt ran the high risk of undermining the piece’s sublimity.
The most telling evidence of this however was her ‘real’ encore – Strauss’ Morgen! Laid bear with no choreography or light projected distractions it was as pure a performance as I have ever heard. Pure in terms of its musicianship, integrity and emotional candour.
Ms DiDonato has asked us all where do we find peace.
Hand on heart, Ms DiDonato, it was in that hushed performance. Locked into my memory I will return to it again and again.