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Posts Tagged ‘Joyce DiDonato’

Drama Queen

In Review on November 23, 2016 at 1:16 pm

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.

2015 – Could do better.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 31, 2016 at 10:14 am

This is more an observation of my own performance last year, than of the operas, concerts and recitals that I attended and missed.

Well, for the most part.

A change of job meant that I was unable to attend everything I had originally scheduled in the year and more often than not had to give up my tickets. The lack of time also severely curtailed not only my ability to write about music in general but also listening to music as often as I wanted to.

And this was a shame as there were a number of standout recital discs last year that gave me great when pleasure when I found did have the time. A special mention must go to John Elliott Gardiner’s new recording of the b minor mass. It was hard to imagine that a new recording could surpass his first, but I was wrong. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there were moments that were as close to heaven as music can every get. Sadly, this incredible performance also made me realise that my own pilgrimage through the cantatas of Bach once again stalled in 2015, and I remained stuck in 1714. Progress must be made this year, or I shall have to admit defeat.

And there were other artists who gave me great pleasure. These included Elizabeth Watts in Alessandro Scarlatti; Max Cencic’s Arie Napoletane; Valer Sabadus in Caldara; Ann Hallenberg’s Agrippina and arias for Luigi Marchesi, Matthew Rose singing Mozart’s arias for Benucci and Evgeny Nikitin singing Wagner. If you haven’t had an opportunity to listen to these discs then I can’t recommend them strongly enough.

By the same token, there were some recitals that didn’t personally make much of an impact – surprisingly both Christian Gerhaher and Dorothea Roschmann’s Mozart recital discs left me slightly cold, as did Rattle’s Das Rheingold. And Diana Damrau’s Fiamma del bel canto misfired, as did Dagmar Peckova’s Sinful Women.

In terms of live performances, not all were strictly speaking concerts. The two that remain most vivid in my memory are Farinelli and the King and Joyce DiDonato’s Masterclass.

I was fortunate to bag tickets for Farinelli at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre. The combination of an excellent acting casting led by the masterful Mark Rylance and Iestyn Davies as the famous countertenor, made for a dramatic evening with ravishing music. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ms DiDonato’s masterclass was as compelling. Listening to her talk through the music of those students lucky enough to be on stage with her, to literally feel her enthusiasm and to hear the difference that she made to their performances was incredible. And Francesca Chiejina’s performance of Ah, chi mi dice mai still brings a smile to my face. She is a name to watch out for.

The single most exciting project launched last year was Classical Opera’s Mozart 250. I’ve just attended the most recent concert in this series – a retrospective of 1766. It was, as you would expect, excellent but of all the music performed it was Benjamin Hullet’s performance of Et incarnatus est from Haydn’s Missa Cellensis in honorem that really stood out. In 2015, Classical Opera provided enthusiastic audiences with a canter through 1765 – a year very much focused on Mozart’s tour of London with some superlative performances by Anna Devin, John Mark Ainsley and Ben Johnson and a complete performance of JC Bach’s Adriano in Siria. This is a project both ambitious in its scale as well as superlative in terms of the quality of its music making. Ian Page must be heartily commended for his vision and passion, and I cannot wait for the next concert – Jomelli’s Il Vologeso.

I attended three other opera performance of note in 2015. First, a performance of Act Three of Die Walküre at the Millennium Centre Handel represented by Semele, Giove in Argo and Saul. Koenigs might be leaving Cardiff but he leaves an impressive legacy at WNO – the orchestra was well-honed and the cast led by Terfel and Theorin were incredible. The London Handel Festival opened with Semele, which offered mixed performances but it was a delight to hear both the chorus, Louise Innes and Robin Blaze. A performance of Giove in Argo followed and was exemplary not only for the standard of the singers but also the direction and stage design. I also trekked to Glyndebourne for Saul but sadly didn’t get a chance to write it up. It was in turns, exuberant, poignant, joyful and tragic. In short, it was a masterpiece, with an incredible cast led by Christopher Purves in the title role, Lucy Crowe, Sophie Bevan and Paul Appleby as his children and Iestyn Davies as David. Smartly directed by Barry Kosky and conduced by Ivor Bolton, it is a production I could see again, and again and again.

Sadly, both the opera houses in London had mixed years and in face, both could have ‘done better’ too.

ENO remains in trouble whether you believe it is because of mismanagement and misdirection or because there are ‘barbarians at the gate’. A revival of WNO’s Mastersinger of Nuremberg reminded everyone that at its best, ENO is a marvellous company with, at its heart, singers and players who fervently believe in the importance of ‘company’. But that success has since been eclipsed – or rather overrun – by a series of problems and no end seems in sight. It’s hard to believe at times that ENO can – or should in its current form – survive. I think that we might all find out this year.

2015 ended with Covent Garden announcing the departure of Kasper Holten as Artistic Director – and his departure almost felt like the end of a grand experiment. But is it one that has gone well? It’s hard to say. On the basis of productions such as Król Roger it would have to be a yes, but the same year witnessed productions such as Guillaume Tell and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahaganny which fell way short of many peoples’ expectations. And in some ways, the same can be said of Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice – save the excellent playing of the Monteverdi Orchestra and the singing of Lucy Crowe – and and Monteverdi’s Orfeo which was marred by being sung in English for no real reason.

2016 has started well with Mozart 250 and here’s hoping that I both make the time and find the discipline to improve on last year.

And there are things planned which I would rather resign over than miss – David Hansen in Giulio Cesare in Dresden, a suite of Richard Strauss operas in Berlin and ENO’s Tristan und Isolde – and that is before I have had a real chance to look at the new seasons that are being announced as I write.

So very belatedly, I wish you all a happy new year and hope that your year is filled with much music.

A masterclass Masterclass

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on April 16, 2015 at 5:34 pm

Review – Joyce DiDonato Spotlight Masterclass (Milton Court Hall, Wednesday 15 April 2015)

It’s rare to come away from a masterclass feeling that – as a non-singer – I have learned something other than the importance of the technique required by singers. But Joyce DiDonato’s masterclass, as part of her highly successful residency at the Barbican, was one of those rare occasions where you it felt less like a ‘lesson’ than watching a conversation.

And above all, it felt like a complete privilege.

I readily admit I am a massive fan of Joyce DiDonato – both of the performances themselves and the great joy and wonder that she communicates when singing. And during the masterclass, not only was that joy and wonder ever present, but both also true sense of humility at the gift she possesses as well as the hard work and hardship that singers must endure.

It must be daunting for young singers to participate in any masterclass but all four – Francesca Chiejina, Dominic Sedgwick, Alison Langer and last minute replacement Eliza Safjan – took the occasion in their stride.

With each and everyone, Joyce DiDonato achieved immediate and noticeably positive results regardless of the fact that they weren’t all in her specific Fach. For each young singer, she offered advice that was a combination of technique, character interpretation and often through creative visualization. For example, when talking of breath control with Dominic Sedgwick and Eliza Safjan. With the baritone it was how breath control would enable a smoother legato, even in the recitative of Mozart’s Hai gia vinto la causa. With Ms Safjan, it was about the relationship between dynamics and breath control that saw immediate results with Adina’s aria Prendi per me sei libero from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore.

With both Ms Safjan and Alison Langer’s Gilda, DiDonato also discussed the words themselves– not only the meaning but also the context. This enabled both singers to bring their performances more to life. This was particularly evident in Langer’s Caro nome when Ms DiDonato had the soprano sing the aria as if trying to convince a skeptical friend. It brought a whole new dimension to the performance and I have to wonder how long it will be before we see Caro nome as a conversation on stage somewhere. It could be highly effective.

But above all Joyce DiDonato also discussed the importance of taking risks. And the most interesting and insightful discussion on this happened with the most memorable singer, Francesca Chiejina. This young soprano has the most amazing voice – rich, warm, even through it’s range and matched with very strong technique. Donna Elvira’s Ah, chi mi dice mai is clearly an aria close to Joyce DiDonato’s own heart and at Milton Court her discussion of the aria with Francesca paid incredible dividends. A discussion of context, the words and the vocal line that Mozart had written, revealed not only the mastery of Mozart’s ability to create a flesh and blood character through the music, but also Joyce DiDonato’s ability to reveal it to both singer and audience. In the first section of the masterclass, the two singers discussed motivation as well as the musical requirements of this aria, and DiDonato was able to coax Francesca Chiejina out of her comfort zone and transform her first rendition of the aria – impressive and solid as it was – into the kernel of Chiejina’s own interpretation of one of Mozart’s most famous heroines.

It was nothing short of revelatory and I have no doubt that Francesca Chiejina has a remarkable career ahead of her.

And a special note of thanks to the two pianists – Dylan Perez and Harry Sever. Their playing was exemplary.

Surprisingly, two hours zipped past without anyone noticing and at the end Ms DiDonato took some questions from singers in the audience. At no point during this session, did she sugar coat her answers – indeed, her honesty was refreshing. But it was the final question that summed it up for me. What’s at the centre of Joyce DiDonato’s being? What keeps her going?

Music. And with a passion, commitment and talent such as hers – and all three she shares so selflessly – I do believe music could change the world for the better.

Bewitched. Beguiled. Bedazzled.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 12, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Review – Alcina (Barbican Centre, Friday 10 October 2014)

Alcina – Joyce DiDonato
Ruggiero – Alice Coote
Morgana – Anna Christy
Bradamante – Christine Rice
Oronte – Ben Johnson
Oberto – Anna Devin
Melisso – Wojtek Gierlach

The English Concert

Harry Bicket (Director/Harpsichord)

Alcina is – for me – Handel’s greatest opera. Personally, it trumps Giulio Cesare in the magnificent invention of its music and outdoes the likes of Rodelinda and Orlando in its depiction of human nature.

And at the Barbican on Friday evening, this performance was the musical equivalent of a perfect storm. All the elements came together magically and deluged the entire hall in wave after wave of perfectly attuned, emotionally charged and dazzling brilliant musical performance.

Part of the Joyce DiDonato’s residency at the Barbican, it followed a magnificent recital drawn from her latest bel canto disc, Stella di Napoli. I never got round to writing up my thoughts on either disc or the concert itself but suffice it to say that both were magnificent.

Needless to say, as Alcina she was vocally superb – flawless even– and musically intuitive. And although there were no tomatoes this time, once again she was impressively attired to suit both character and occasion.

And each and every cast member – and the English Concert – were similarly impressive. In terms of the quality of the singing, their technique, their interpretation of Handel’s music including very tasteful embellishment and ornamentation, the commitment of everyone was stage was absolute.

While her Alcina on disc – recorded with Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco – is formidable on stage she brought a sense of humanity – of womanhood – to the role that is often missing in other performances. There was a heartrending frailty to Si, son quella! and a real sense of anguish in Ah! Il mio cor – possibly one of the finest arias Handel ever penned – that completely floored me. In Di mio cor, her Alcina was more than a woman in love, she conveyed a real sense of coquettishness, of almost innocent, true love. As a result, when this Alcina – rebuffed – turns to fury, it was a believable journey. This wasn’t so much a sorceress not getting her own way, but a woman scorned, seeking revenge and ultimately resigned to her fate. From her disbelief in Ombre pallide when the shades do not answer her summons, through her ‘righteous’ anger when she dismisses Ruggiero in Ma quando tornera to her almost final realization that she has lost him forever in Mi restamo le lagrime, was an emotional journey that was etched on the audiences’ minds. And I say almost, because in the trio, Non e amor, né gelosia – which I could have sworn was shorn – there was a palpable sense that should almost got her man back.

That she didn’t was evident from the moment Alice Coote stepped on stage. Like Ms DiDonato her total commitment not only to the role, but when singing Handel – and indeed in general – makes for an incredibly special performance. Her Ariodante at ENO will remain with me forever – not to mention her Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.

To Ruggiero, she brought brashness – a youthful and naïve impetuosity that was palpable. But while Di te mi rido might have been suitably dismissive, with Mi lusinga il dolce affetto Coote’s Ruggiero began to doubt his own reality. In Mio bel tesoro Coote’s asides managed to sound slightly indecisive and the eloquence which she brought to the wonderful Verdi prati made it sound not so much an aria of adieu but one of regret. But there was no doubt that duty and true love had won out with Ms Coote’s spectacular performance – complete with braying horns – of Sta nell’ircana.

Following her impressive Cleopatra for ENO – one of the only things worth remembering from that dire production – Anna Christy brought crystalline accuracy, immaculate attention to detail and line, accomplished interpretation and more than a little wit to the role of Morgana. Of course everyone was on the edge of their seat for Tornami a vagheggiar – and Ms Christy did not disappoint, but for me it was Credete al mio dolore that set the seal on Ms Christy’s Handellian credentials. With support obbligato support from Joseph Crouch, Ms Christy not only negotiated this most difficult aria but imbued it with a real sense of pathos.

I can’t remember the last time I saw Christine Rice –ENO’s Partenope perhaps? – but it was a pleasure seeing her in the role of Bradamante. Her rich, velvet-toned mezzo was well matched to the role. Similarly, the Oberto of Anna Devin was superb. Chi m’insegna il caro padre was beautifully delivered with expert control of both the exposed line and embellished da capo and quite rightly, her bright soprano in Barbara! Io ben lo so brought cheers from the audience.

And both Ben Johnson as Oronte and Wojtek Gierlach as Melisso breathed new life into their arias – which compared to those of the other cast members – can often seem lackluster. Gierlach’s resonant bass made for a beautifully articulated Pensa a chi geme and Johnson sailed effortlessly through Un momento di contento.

The English Concert under the direction of Harry Bickett similarly excelled themselves. I have already mentioned the wonderful playing of Joseph Crouch and similar plaudits must be awarded to the wonderful playing of the leader, Nadja Zweiner in Ama, sospira, ma non t’offende with Ms Christy – soloist and singer in perfect synchronization.

By the end of the evening this was an Alcina to cherish and remember. And wonder why the Barbican doesn’t have its own label to capture magical moments like this.

Vil Bastarda

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Uncategorized on July 6, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Maria Stuarda (Royal Opera House, Saturday 4 July 2014)

Maria Stuarda – Joyce DiDonato
Elisabetta I – Carmen Giannattasio
Giorgio Talbot – Matthew Rose
Guigliemo Cecil – Jeremy Carpenter
Roberto, Conte di Leicester – Ismael Jordi
Anna Kennedy – Kathleen Wilkinson
Executioner – Peter Dineen

Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Directors – Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier
Set Designs – Christian Fenouillat
Costume Designs – Agostino Cavalca
Lighting Design – Christophe Forey

Bertrand de Billy (Conductor)

Hopefully this production will be best remembered for the quality of the singing and the interaction between the main protagonists rather than the – at times questionable – production.

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda seems to be growing in popularity. I admit I never saw the Met Production nor that of WNO, but it’s easy to see why. Inspired by the story-that-never-happened, he wrote some incredibly beautiful music for the two key protagonists.

And in those two protagonists – Elisabetta I and Maria Stuarda – Covent Garden had cast two incredible soloists and in spite of some first night nerves, both Joyce DiDonato and Carmen Giannattasio shone.

For Elisabetta, Donizetti wrote some of his most unforgiving music – not technically but emotionally. There is little warmth in her music, not even when she shrewishly begs for Leicester’s affections. It’s a skillfully penned musical portrait of that most famous Queen.

And Ms Giannattasio’s performance – despite her Blackadder-inspired gown – was equally matched in her performance. Exuding musical authority, there is a keen – almost steely – edge to her voice that is coupled a secure and natural technique. In both Ah! Quando all’ ara scorgemi and through to her exit after a magnificent Ah! dal cielo discenda un raggio, she displayed a notable control of the vocal line. This was finely matched by an equality of tone and balance throughout her range combined with a musically intelligent use of ornamentation. It’s no surprise that the audience was so appreciative as she stormed out. Her return for her confrontation with Leicester and closing duet was equally engaging even if de Billy drove the music slightly too hard for me.

As her nemesis, Joyce DiDonato was the perfect foil. Vocally – and again I put this down to first night nerves – it took a while for Ms DiDonato to settle but as I have said on countless, countless occasions, Joyce DiDonato has incredible natural talent. At her disposal she has a vocal armoury that is securely grounded on formidable technique. And coupled with this is a musical intelligence that enables her to create a character that is fully fleshed out.

And it all came together (almost) perfectly on opening night as she gave her second portrayal of the doomed Queen of Scotland.

From the opening phrase of Oh nube! che lieve per l’aria ti aggiri Ms DiDonato portrayed a Queen conflicted, confident and ultimately resigned to her fate. And if her opening cavatina, gave the audience what they have always expected from her in the past, it was her performance in the ensuing sextet that took Ms DiDonato performance to new heights.

This was the moment audiences have always looked forward to. It might not have happened in history, but Donizetti creates one of the great moments in bel canto opera.

The vocal dignity of Morta al mondo, e morta al trono was genuinely reflected as she implored Elisabetta for mercy. And it made the English queen’s reaction all the more shocking and Giannattasio’s Va, lo chiedi, o sciagurata more thrilling.

From here, the inevitability of Maria Stuarda’s condemnation of Elisabetta – Profanato è il soglio inglese,
Vil bastarda, dal tuo piè! – was inevitable. And de Billy remorselessly drove the music to its conclusion. No wonder the King and censors were perturbed by this opera. It wasn’t only the libretto they had fears of. It was the force of Donizetti’s music at this point.

But if Joyce DiDonato displayed Maria’s mettle in this sextet it was in the final Act that she displayed her humanity.

Again, Donizetti wrote some of his most powerful music for this heroine. Quando di luce rosea was aching in the simplicity with which DiDonato sang it. Again her vocal control and the way she coloured the arching phrases was masterful.

As Donizetti drove us inexorably to the denouement, DiDonato rose to the occasion with – seemingly – no effort. Effortlessly soaring over the chorus in Deh! Tu di un’umile preghiera il suono, the nobility of her last message to Elisabetta – D’un cor che muore reca il perdono – was mesmerizing.

But it was humility of Ah! se un giorno da queste ritorte that demonstrated that Joyce DiDonato is one of the great singers of our age.

Sadly Donizetti didn’t lavish such attention on the men in this opera. However they provided more than able support.

Of the three, it was Matthew Rose who proved the strongest man in the cast not only for the quality and assuredness of his singing, but for his ability to portray the conflict within the character itself. Jeremy Carpenter also ably portrayed Cecil although slightly more menace would have made him more three-dimensional.

I am afraid I was not as impressed by the Conte di Leicester of Ismael Jordi. Technically it was all there, indeed unlike some of his bel canto fellows, he can find the necessary dynamic contrasts required. But I found there was a slightly metallic and constantly strained quality to his voice, which didn’t enable any sense of light or dark in his singing.

In the pit – as I have mentioned – de Billy drove the music on occasion too hard for my liking, but there is no denying that he clearly had the entire sweep of the drama in his mind. And the orchestra played with finesse although – and perhaps because of how he drove the music forward – there were times when Donizetti’s scoring was lost.

If there was one thing of dubious parentage then it was the vision and direction of this production.

It certainly drew a response from the audience. There was boo-ing for Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. While this isn’t the place to discuss whether the actual act of booing is acceptable or not, I have to say that I spent most of the opera thinking what exactly had they been thinking.

Quite literally a ‘vil bastarda’.

There is no denying that the singers themselves acted their parts. And brilliantly. But I do have to wonder how much of this was the singers’ own work when the overall direction was so flawed.

I have no problem with modernity of interpretation, I have no problem with mixing old and new. I simply got the impression that Leiser and Caurier might have started with a good idea but promptly left it somewhere.

From the start the signs were not good. Before the opera actually started, they clumsily told the audience the ending. Why didn’t they use the overture to perhaps portray the events that led Maria Stuarda to be imprisoned in Fotheringay?

The opening chorus look deliberately dressed as caricatures of the Queen Mother, Kate Middleton and current sons and grandsons of the Queen. Perhaps Covent Garden had borrowed the outfits from ITV’s ‘drama’ The Palace? If so, it was a cheap shot rather than adding any resonance.

The over-exaggerated costume that they hindered Elisabetta with almost undermined the character herself had it not been for Giannattasio’s acting abilities. With echoes of Blackadder almost, the soprano seemed to spend more than a little time working out how to negotiate the stage. Every time the poor Queen sat down it looked like she was trying to park something not much smaller than a tank on a smaller lawn. And while we all know that Elizabeth was bald (and so too was Mary Stuart for that matter) it seemed like too easy a dramatic coup to make in the opening scene.

The scenes in prison initially seemed more promising. The use of projection was effective but wasn’t carried through and therefore a lack of variety – both in terms of lighting and setting – made for an incredibly lacklustre act with the only dramatic intensity – apart from the music – being Elisabetta throwing food and chair around the set.

The curtain – clearly venetian blinds – hinted at a sense of voyeurism that wasn’t realized until the closing scene and therefore any sense of dramatic impact – hinting that the audience was complicit in Maria Stuarda’s execution – was dulled.

The final scene itself suggested a scenario more usually associated with the execution of criminals in the USA. Visually powerful as it was – and I doubt it was any kind of political statement – it only succeeded in creating a sense of detachment that was out of sorts with the emotional weight of Donizetti’s music.

Maria Stuarda is not a difficult story to tell. It is a story of love, of fear and of power. But it’s also a story of identity.

Donizetti’s music might note have suffered due to the compelling and brilliant performances stage, but Leiser and Caurier simply demonstrated that they couldn’t tell the story.

2013 – Bicentenaries, belles and bigots.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 7, 2014 at 3:21 pm

2013 was a year of some glorious music making, some not so glorious productions and, as ever, some rather silly comments and furtive defensive statements.

In the bicentenary year of Wagner and Verdi, opera houses and concert halls were awash with their music. But while it seems that in this two horse race, the master of Green Hill won out against the man from Busseto ultimately all music lovers were amply rewarded.

All credit must go to the organisers of Wagner 200 for creating a year-long celebration of Wagner – not only in terms of performances but also in terms of lectures, screenings and masterclasses. While the opening concert didn’t have quite the ‘bang’ that it needed there is no doubt in my mind that one of the final events of the year – a concert performance of Act Two of Tristan und Isolde – was magnificent. Sadly I never found time to write my attendance up but suffice it to say that after a lukewarm Schubert “Unfinished”, Daniel Harding ramped up the emotional temperature after the interval. Iréne Theorin, a last minute replacement for Katarina Dalayman, was in my opinion magnificent in the role. Vocally she imbued Isolde not only with heft but – when required – a real sense of the delicacy of the vocal line. And yet it was Matti Salminen as King Marke who stood out on the evening. Having seen him sing this role a number of times his portrayal and interpretation of the role remains second to none.

I hope that having established itself as a brand, Wagner 200 continues to create events and support concerts beyond last year.

A performance of a different sort was delivered by Simon Callow with his own very personal tribute to Wagner. Well-researched and performed from the heart, it reminded us all of Wagner the man, the musician and why some of us love him.

But if there was one Wagner performance that was perfection then it was Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin’s Ring cycle at the Proms. Words cannot do the cycle justice. The cast were – almost to a man and woman – perfectly cast and of course Nina Stemme left the entire audience in awe at the very end. And marshaling the vocal and orchestral forces from the podium, Maestro Barenboim demonstrated why he is one of the leading, if not leading, Wagnerian and operatic conductors performing today. And special mention must be made of Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne in the Tristan und Isolde that was sandwiched into the Ring cycle.

In terms of Verdi, ENO gave us Konwitschny’s thought provoking and well performed La Traviata but it was Covent Garden’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes that proved to be my Verdian highlight. Bedevilled with casting problems, Stefan Herheim’s first production in the UK was a smart and at times incisive retelling of this typically complicated Verdian love story. Lianna Haroutounian was a brave and – despite being a last minute booking – vocally secure Hélène but it was Michael Volle as de Monfort who dominated the performances with his great combination of vocal confidence and brilliant acting. This was Covent Garden’s first run of Vêpres and I do hope it won’t be its last.

But of all the productions I saw this year it was a new opera that left the greatest mark. George Benjamin’s Written on Skin was a tour de force both musically and vocally. The cast, the brilliant Christopher Purves, the dazzling Barbara Hannigan and the beguiling Bejun Mehta created true drama on stage, aided and abetted by Katie Mitchell’s intelligent and thought-provoking production. Again, I hope it becomes a regular in ROH’s repertoire.

ENO continued to both amaze and frustrate. The much-expected Medea featuring Sarah Connolly in the title role and directed by David McVicar, exceeded expectations. Once again, ENO showed that with the right casting and director, French baroque opera can be as compelling and gripping as more commonly performed operas. I sincerely hope that John Berry continues to champion opera from this genre, and I am pleased that he has finally seen sense and we will start to see live broadcasts from the London Coliseum into cinemas.

Opera North continued with their own Ring cycle but sadly their Siegfried continued to suffer from casting issues first heard in its Die Walküre the previous year. Their ambition to perform the Ring singly and then as a complete cycle at a later date, is laudable and I sincerely hope that their forthcoming Götterdämmerung fields a stronger, more musically confident final cast.

In advance of the 150th celebration in 2014, Richard Strauss features on my highlights of 2013. Covent Garden’s Elektra was a highlight not so much for Christine Goerke in the title role but for Adrianne Pieczonka as her troubled sister. I said it at the time but I cannot understand why Ms Pieczonka is not heard more often in the UK. She is one of the leading Straussian’s performing today – her performance as the Kaiserin in Munich’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten was incredible and it is a shame that she hasn’t been cast in this year’s Claus Guth production in London. Similarly I was astonished to discover when attending the Met’s production of FroSch that it was Anne Schwanewilm’s debut. I only hope that her vocally mesmerizing performance and magnetic characterization as the Kaiserin will see her invited back to New York more often.

In terms of performances three truly stood out in 2013.

First and foremost was Joyce DiDonato’s concert performance of her recital disc Drama Queens. I can’t think of a performer today who not only has breathless technique and stunning musical sensitivity and intelligence but also an infectious joie de vivre in performance. The only sad thing is that Ms DiDonato’s performance on stage and in concert are so brilliant and memorable that the space between them always seems agonizingly long.

Karita Matilla gave a blood curdling performance of the final scene from Salome in the inaugural The Rest Of Noise concert. After a shaking start in the preceding lieder, Ms Matilla gave ample notice why she remains one of the leading character sopranos. Not only did she totally inhabit the character but rarely for sopranos these days, she took risks with her voice, sacrificing beauty of tone to convey Salome’s emotional torment. Ms Matilla’s performance was “shock and awe” Strauss-style and superb.

And closing the year in musical style were Sonia Prina and Ensemble Claudiana at Wigmore Hall. A celebration of the music written by Handel for Senesino, Ms Prina and her merry band delivered high quality musicianship, vocal splendor and verve in spades.

And of all the recital discs that I have listened to this year, one remains in ever constant play – the disc of early classical arias by countertenor David Hansen. He might not technically be a “belle” although he is distractingly handsome, but in a world that sometimes feels swamped by similar sounding countertenors, Hansen cuts above many of the others not only in terms of the beauty of his voice and its incredibly range, but also the depth of interpretation in each of the arias. Here’s hoping he makes it to London very soon.

Sadly 2013 wasn’t all great. Bar the ridiculous and demeaning comments by the Telegraph’s Arts Editor Sarah Crompton and Maria Miller’s naïve “valuation” of culture in the UK, Putin’s homophobic savagery fell on the deaf ears of Russia’s conductors and performers. Indeed it was only when pushed into a corner that the likes of Gergiev and Anna Netrebko were finally forced into issuing the blandest of statements, thereby confirming that they were both unwilling to bite the hand of the dictator who feeds them.

A shame.

So what of 2014? Well clearly the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss will ensure that he is heard in many a concert hall and on stage. Personally I am off to Dresden for a new production of Elektra where the three leading ladies are Evelyn Herlitzius, Anne Schwanewilms and Waltraud Meier with René Pape as Orest and then to Guth’s FroSch at Covent Garden. Staying in London I am looking forward to Holten’s production of Don Giovanni, Richard Jones’ take on Rodelinda and Cavalli’s L’Ormindo at the new theatre at The Globe. And of course a flurry of concerts with the likes of Anne Hallenberg, Soile Isokoski, Angelika Kirchschlager and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Plans for trips abroad are in the planning.

So it only leaves me to thank one and all for reading this blog. I hope it has been as much fun reading it as it has been writing it.

I wish you all a musically fulfilling and thought-provoking 2014.

Scotch Missed – Tartan With Everything.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 28, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Review – La Donna del Lago (Covent Garden, Monday 27 May 2013)

Elena – Joyce DiDonato
Uberto – Juan Diego Flórez
Malcolm – Daniela Barcellona
Rodrigo – Colin Lee
Douglas – Simon Orfila
Albina – Justina Gringyte
Serano – Robin Leggate

Director – John Fulljames
Set Designs – Dick Bird
Costume Designs – Yannis Thavoris
Lighting Design – Bruno Poet
Choreographer – Arthur Pita

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Conductor – Michele Mariotti

There is no doubt that the Royal Opera House has a hit on its hands. But I do think it would have been just as much of a success if it had been performed in concert and the production itself had been shelved.

I read somewhere that this was a brand new production as the original production was not considered strong enough. Did it have fried mars bars being dispensed before battle or something? Or something else suitably stereotypical of an Englishman’s interpretation of what Scotland is like north of the Border?

But first, the singing.

It was first rate. Mostly. It was definitely built around its two main singers – Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez.

Fan warning.

Without a doubt Ms DiDonato is the leading mezzo soprano performing today. She invests so much energy, enthusiasm, musicianship and credibility into every appearance that at times the intensity can almost be too much but not quite. She wraps herself into character completely.

Her Elena was everything it should be – passionate, devoted, defiant. The music itself held no terrors for her as she sailed through the coloratura and spun out perfectly even legato lines. It was interesting to hear a snippet of her recent masterclass at the Linbury. In a short five-minute excerpt she all but defined the basis of her own performance ethos when coaching a young singer – how an entire role informs her approach to the music as the narrative of the opera develops.

She really needs to write a book.

But it wasn’t only in her arias that she excelled but in the ensembles she demonstrated an innate sensitivity with the other singers. The trio and quartet that close the First Act for example and her duet with Daniele Barcellona were simply brilliant.

But it has to be said Oh mattutini arbori and Fra il padre, e fra l’amante were worth the price of the tickets alone. DiDonato really can switch from the smoothest legato singing – always beautifully and tastefully embellished – and the most ferocious coloratura with pinpoint accuracy. And it seems with incredible ease.

Outstanding.

As Malcolm, Daniele Barcellona was superb as well. Her dark, dusky voice was a perfect foil for DiDonato. She literally spat out her coloratura in her solo numbers in both acts but when required, melded her voice with her onstage partners.

Colin Lee was an unexpected pleasure. It’s a shame that Fulljames wrapped him in a character of such ungainly barbarity as his was an elegant, flexible and bright tenor voice, full of character and depth. And he was able to shade his voice most elegantly, with an acute sense of dynamic control. I understand in the past he has covered for Florez. I can understand why.

And on Juan Diego Flórez this may be unpopular but he was a disappointment. For the overwhelming majority of the time, he seemed to have one volume no matter what he was singing – loud. There is no doubt that he still has the technique and can hit all the notes but it seems to be at the price of finesse. Indeed, in the trio just after the start of the Second Act he seemed involved in a singing competition not only with Colin Lee but also with himself. And compared to DiDonato and Lee, his stand-and-deliver method of acting was decidedly wooden. A shame as I have heard him sing before and always been impressed by his performances which have been more nuanced and – well – musical.

But the audience was having none of it. Technique won out over a truly ensemble performance.

Simon Orfila’s Malcolm was suitably solid and special mention must go to the Scott of Robin Leggate. Justina Gringyte’s Albina was a little too harsh for me.

Michele Mariotti conducted a brisk but meticulous performance. The chorus has rarely sounded better and Mariotti pulled out the delicacy of Rossini’s orchestral writing from the orchestra who are on top form at the moment. And with all the tempos well judged, the music was given real space and opportunity to breathe.

Having seen John Fulljames’ La Clemenza di Tito I was interested to see what he would do with Rossini. His approach was an interesting one and on paper, and no doubt when the model was first presented for approval, showed promise.

However his Scottish Highlands lacked the finesse of his interpretation of Ancient Rome as corporate boardroom.

There are times when a traditional approach definitely works better. And this should have been one of those times.

The sets themselves not so subtly hinted at Scotland with their granite overtones and – in the second act – a hint of Highland trees. The stairwell cleverly suggested the sweeping staircase of a Scottish castle and the use of a painted screen to separate one world from another was a smart device.

The conceit however of bringing together the world of Rossini and Scott with a ‘real-time’ setting showed a director trying too hard. Reminiscent of A Night In the Museum without the slapstick, it led to a congested stage at times. For example the English soldiers’ chorus at the start had something of the Gilbert & Sullivan about it. Unintended I am sure.

However it was Fulljames’ general characterization that let the production down. Portraying the Highlanders as savages – complete with sexual assault and a general disdain of women – was simply ugly. It was clumsy and jarred dramatically. And it seems the idea of a hanging dead animal has migrated from the Coliseum to Covent Garden with the inevitable entrails and blood smearing oath sworn at the end of Act One.

And the ending – the stage sprayed in tartan with the onstage musicians clothed in what looked like dressing gowns – was similarly gauche.

Less Braveheart and more Bland-heart.

However the production couldn’t undermine the overall quality of the singing on stage.

I have another ticket. If Covent Garden can be persuaded to dispense with the staging and if Juan Diego Flórez can find his volume button then it will be a perfect evening.

The Drama. The Diva. And The Dress.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on February 7, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Review – Drama Queens (Barbican, Wednesday 6 February 2013)

Hello. I am LietoFineLondon and I am a DiDonato-holic.

But boy can the Yankee diva sing.

Her current project – Drama Queens– needs no introduction. The CD, the incredibly successful recital tour and of course, the dress, have had more than a few superlative column inches.

I don’t agree with those who say that dusting off forgotten composers is – for wont of a better word – a waste of time. Absolutely not. Not only can they reveal music of the great beauty – as Drama Queens has – but just as importantly they help in building a clearer picture and context around those composers who are still household names.

And on Wednesday night the tour arrived in the UK. So often it’s a case that the live recital doesn’t live up to the recording or vice versa.

This was definitely not true at The Barbican.

It was an evening of stunning musicianship, incredible virtuosity and universal pleasure – not only for the audience but clearly for Ms DiDonato herself and the members of Il Complesso Barocco who excitedly revelled in the music making.

The moment that clinched it for me – and for everyone around me I think – was her heart-stopping performance of Piangerò la sorte mia from Giulio Cesare. On the recital disc I originally thought it was slightly on the fast side but seeing her sing it live, watching the emotions conveyed, I was totally captivated by the intensity of her performance.

But it was a recital that delivered with each and every piece.

You would have assumed that Ms DiDonato would have opened the entire recital with anger and musical fireworks. No. In what was an incredibly daring – almost risky – move, the evening opened with an incredibly moving rendition of Cesti’s Intorno all’idol mio supported with great delicacy by the pared down orchestra. Ms DiDonato scaled down her voice accordingly but not the emotional temperature. The simple beauty of her delivery, weighing each and every word and phrase was hypnotic.

And this was continued after she sat through a brisk and vigorous Scarlatti sinfonia (from Tolomeo ed Alessandro) into Disprezzata regina from L’Incoronazione di Poppea. This Ottavia was no shrinking violet resigned to her fate and the mezzo dug deep into the words to convey the pain, anguish and anger of this angry woman spurned. The way she literally spat out In braccio di Poppea was a masterclass in declamation in itself.

And without a break the ensemble launched into the first of the arias “rediscovered” as part of this project – Giacomelli’s Sposa, son disprezzata. Elegantly supported by the orchestra Ms DiDonato finally delivered the trademarks of her singing – a rich and resonant mezzo soprano voice, beautifully controlled dynamic and colouring and the most delicately spun filigree vocal line.

Perfect.

Then most unexpectedly a Vivaldi concerto – Per Pisendel – by Dmitry Sinkovsky and the orchestra. I have to admit while it was brilliantly – if at times at times a tad too brittle in tone – played it brought down the emotional temperature of the concert to that point.

The first part of the recital closed with bright and sparky performance of Orlandini’s Da torbida procella from Berenice. Ms DiDonato flung out the divisions with confident abandon and gently “bopped” along to the music.

The second half and an evolved frock – that was much appreciated by the audience – opened with an aria from Hasse’s Antonio e Cleopatra. And then, as mentioned as perfect as can be performance of Handel’s Piangerò la sorte mia. The searing intensity of this performance caught everyone by surprise and there was that magical moment of complete silence before the audience showed their appreciation.

After the Handel the passacaglia from Radamisto was a very welcome orchestral interlude. In a strange way it didn’t dissolve the intensity of the previous aria but – almost like a sorbet – cleansed the palette in preparation for what must be one of the most beautiful performances from the recital disc – Porta’s Madre diletta, abbraciami.

And here Ms DiDonato did not disappoint. Sung with great poignancy, this lilting siciliana carried the emotional momentum forward. As with the rest of the arias performed on the evening, the singer’s intelligent embellishments added the right balance of emotional weight and virtuosity in each and every da capo return.

After two delicately played ballet movements from Gluck’s Armide the concert proper closed with Brilla nell’anima from Handel’s Alessandro. Alert, bright and joyously sung it was a fitting end to a brilliant concert.

But Ms DiDonato did not disappoint with her two encores. It’s a mark of her homespun style that Joyce DiDonato didn’t only take the time to express her enthusiasm for the Drama Queen project and her collaboration with Alan Curtis but also Dame Westwood and her team for “the dress”.

The first was the perfect compliment to Piangerò and again a personal favourite from the disc, Lasciami piangere from Keiser’s Fredegunda. Time literally seemed to stop as Ms DiDonato spun out a beautifully poised performance of this deceptively simply aria. For me it surpassed even the earlier performance of Piangerò.

But no recital should end with emotional heartbreak and therefore the Yankee Diva left us with a most fiery Col Versar, barbaro, il sangue from Orlandini’s Berenice and a final reminder of the da caop from Brilla nell’arma.

And quite rightly the audience came to their feet to applaud this most perfect evening. I may be partisan, bias – call it what you will – but rarely have I attended a recital of such musical brilliance, intelligence, passion and quite frankly, swaggering verve.

I only hope that EMI realise what an amazing project this is and find the resources and determination to record Drama Queens on DVD.

And it’s no lie that the first thing I did when I returned home was to check if I could possibly see this performance again.

Sunday. Essen. Anyone?

Character? The Don Left Home Without It.

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on January 7, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Review – Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Leporello – Luca Pisaroni
Donna Anna – Diane Damrau
Don Ottavio – Rolando Villazón
Donna Elvira – Joyce DiDonato
Masetto – Konstantin Wolff
Zerlina – Mojca Erdmann

Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Conductor)

Don Giovanni is one of my favourite operas of all time. Indeed the first CD I ever bought was Haitink’s recording of Don Giovanni and to this day – while I have pretty much every other recording – it remains my favourite recording of this work. Haitink draws magnificent singing from the cast – yes even Maria Ewing – and his sense of pacing and drama is second to none. And no Don’s final cry is as chilling as Sir Thomas Allen’s.

On paper, this new recording of Don Giovanni has excellent prospects – a strong cast and an excellent conductor and orchestra.

But somewhere, somehow, it doesn’t fall into all the right places.

I know it is almost “common hackney’d” to say that – like The Godfather – this opera rises or falls on the Don. But is it true. The Don Giovanni character isn’t only the lead, but he is the foundation on which each and every reaction by every other character is played out upon.

The Don Giovanni in Opera North’s recent production wasn’t up to muster and sadly, on this recording neither is Ildebrando d’Arcangelo. It isn’t that he is a bad Don. He sings all the notes. But it is that he simply sings the notes. There is no depth or dimension, light or shade to either his voice or performance and consequently therefore his characterization is a cipher. This is a shame as I have seen him as Leporello at Covent Garden and even his solo recital CD was a stronger performance that we have here.

For me, the most telling moment isn’t in the more expected passages or arias but his performance in the quartet Non ti fidar, o misera. This is the very moment when Don Giovanni’s world because to unravel. In my opinion, he could have got away with the murder of the Commendatore up to this point, but from here on in it’s all downhill. And there is nothing from d’Arcangelo at this point that indicates either this, or the necessity suaveness of character that he realizes he needs if he is to dupe Donna Anna (again) and Don Ottavio.

And sadly this sense of a single dimension Don is evident throughout the opera. La ci darem la mano is tepid with single moments of loud bluster and only in Deh! Vieni alla finestra do we get even the smallest hint of what could have been.

And the closing scenes have none of the electricity and menace that is usually so evident. Indeed so lukewarm and lacklustre are the closing scenes that I’m surprised the Commendatore didn’t simply shrug and not bother. Hell would probably be a more interesting place without this Don Giovanni.

Similarly, casting Rolando Villazón seems an odd choice. Perhaps mentally sporting doublet and hose for Don Ottavio and the Spanish story confused him. For the most part he sings the role as if he is actually on the set of Don Carlo.

Konstantin Wolff is passable as Masetto and so it’s left for Luca Pisaroni to redeem the men of the cast. His Leporello is magnificent – confident as well as confidante, darkly humoured with just the right sneer to his voice. Madamina, il catalogo è questa, from his opening word is a musical equivalent of a money shot even if the orchestra is a little lacklustre. Indeed I couldn’t quite work out why Pisaroni wasn’t the Don sometimes.

And so to the women. Mojca Erdmann is as passable as her beau and while Diana Damrau takes a while to warm up at the beginning, hers is a formidable Donna Anna both musically as well as in terms of character. Of course it is in the two magnificent set pieces that Mozart wrote for this character that Damrau shines. While some sopranos see these more as opportunities for vocal athleticism than personality, Diana Damrau delivers both – pinpoint accuracy, brilliant singing and intense characterization.

For example, just listen to how Ms Damrau shades her voice and handles the words when recounting Don Giovanni’s assault before launching into a full-blooded reminiscence of her struggle. And all this before she launches into a magnificent rendition of Or sai chi l’onore.

Similarly Crudele … Non mi dir, bell’idol mio. Each phrase in the accompanied recitative is beautifully molded and the subsequent aria is a masterclass of how this aria should be sung. Not as a vehicle for vocal fireworks so much as a heartfelt plea to her fiancé. Although by this point in the opera I think she has pretty much made up her mind to dump the man.

And Joyce DiDonato – vocally superb as ever – brings just the right shade of insanity to Donna Elvira from her opening aria where she literally spits out ’empio’ to In quali ecessi … Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata where her technique is as much in evidence as her musicianship.

Sadly however – and through no fault of their own – both Mesdames Damrau and DiDonato don’t stand out because of the quality of their own individual performance. Rather they inadvertently suffer from the lacklustre contributions of their colleagues.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin more than ably conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra through a note-precise performance and you cannot fault his sympathetic support of the singers. But I did wont for greater orchestral characterization. Mozart filled the score with an incredibly amount of colour and bite and for the most part it isn’t much in evidence either in Nézet-Séguin’s conducting nor in the playing of the orchestra.

So all in all this Don Giovanni doesn’t add up for me. For the majority of the time it’s like looking at a watercolour copy of a Goya oil painting. The characters are all there but somehow the music making has got watered down.

Viva La Regina DiDonato

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on December 9, 2012 at 9:20 am

Drama Queens – Joyce DiDonato (Il Complesso Barocco & Alan Curtis)

Album of the year.

There I said it.

Joyce DiDonato’s new album, Drama Queens is – in terms of its high standards of musicianship, exuberant performance and clear passion to perform previously unperformed and undiscovered arias – quite simply the most enjoyable and extraordinary album released this year.

Superlatives over. For now.

It must be a remarkable feeling not only to find – in my romantic mind’s eye – among stacks of dusty manuscripts in the corners of remote libraries arias by unknown composers but then also to perform them.

It’s clearly a trend. Recently Ms Kermes performed arias by composers such as de Mayo and Porpora who are – to a greater extent than before – known to the audience. But on her new recital disc Ms DiDonato delves deeper to bring to life the music of composers who have effectively been forgotten for centuries.

Giuseppe Maria Orlandini. Giovanni Porta. Geminiano Giacomelli. And to a lesser extent Reinhard Keiser. Names much forgotten until now.

And their juxtaposition with the likes of Handel, Hasse, Gluck and Haydn reveals something more startling – that the common perception that they simply ‘weren’t very good’ is not necessarily true. I am not saying that the quality of their music consistently reached the standard of the aforementioned but neither can I believe that these individual arias are simply creative flukes.

And granted it takes a singer of the calibre of Ms DiDonato supported by the excellent Il Complesso Barocco under Alan Curtis to make this music, quite literally, sing.

There is not a weak link in the recital either in terms of the arias chosen or the performances. Yet personally some of the arias stand out more than others.

The opening aria, Da torbida procella from Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s Berenice, with its overtones of Vivaldi and balance of declamatory phrases and florid passages is a fitting opening track to the recital and Ms DiDonato sets a standard that keeps on rising. The second aria taken from Berenice is another vocal tour de force, the incredibly florid vocal writing holding absolutely no terrors for the singer.

Keiser is possibly the most exciting composer on the disc. Fredegunda’s Lasciami piangere is simply haunting and it is the sonority of the orchestral writing as well as the poignancy of the in-built pauses which are, in some ways, as surprising as Ms DiDonato’s heartfelt delivering of the lilting vocal line. Similarly, the deceptively simple Geloso, sospetto from his opera Octavia with its multiple bassoon obbligato is a real gem.

More Keiser please.

Geminiano Giacomelli’s Merope reveals Sposa, son disprezzata. Again its almost Vivaldian shading and orchestral writing support a vocal line spun out above, and in the da capo Ms Donato finds just the right balance of ornamentation to create an greater emotional impact.

Ms Donato also delves right back to Monteverdi and Cesti with style and expertise, modulating the richness of her voice to this earlier music and finding the right colours to bring this music to life. And all with perfect clarity of diction, a trademark of the entire disc in fact.

Ms Donato also includes selections from Handel Hasse. They are beautiful sung with panache but – and perhaps – because they are better known, they do not grab me in the same way as the other arias. But they do serve a purpose, as I have already said, to demonstrate that the other composers on this disc deserve a better place.

The last two selections on the disc are by Haydn and Gluck respectively but drawn from their operas based on the story of Armida. I remember first hearing Vedi, se t’amo … Odio, furor, dispetto on the Dorati set with Jessye Norman and beginning a life-long love of Haydn’s operas. Here Ms Donato delivers an impassioned performance, breathless and fiery in equal measure. The flip side of the emotional coin is Gluck’s Ah! Si la liberte me doit etre ravie sung with a simplicity that packs quite a punch.

However, it is the Giovanni Porta’s haunting preghiera Madre diletta from Iphigenia in Aulide, the second track on the disc, which steals the show in the entire recital. Ms Donato and the players relentlessly drive this siciliana forward. Again the singer and players finds the perfect balance in the returning da capo in terms of ornamentation – the return of Madre, spun out is breathtaking. I cannot believe there was a dry eye in the house when this aria was first performed. It has become a favourite.

Ms Donato is in London in the New Year as part of her tour to promote this album. In reality while I may wax lyrical about the brilliance of this album, don’t take it from me, listen to Joyce DiDonato herself.

Listen. You won’t be disappointed. At all.

This is musical greatness.

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