Cher Public

The sun also rises

If you’re the sort who prefers his diva to be an unapproachable sphinx prone to infuriating cancellations while radiating ennui, I suspect that the sunny, hard-working, grateful persona of American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato will not appeal to you at all. Yet she is surely one of today’s top divas as witnessed at Carnegie Hall Sunday afternoon at the rapturously received final stop of her recent concert tour celebrating the release of her latest CD on Virgin Classics, the wittily named Drama Queens.  

It’s hard to imagine a few thousand American fans cheering lustily for anyone else proposing a program featuring works by relative obscurities like Giacomelli, Orlandini or Porta, unless her name is Cecilia, of course. Yet DiDonato now would appear to have reached a similar level of importance in the opera world: a string of new productions at the world’s most important opera houses, an exclusive recording contract (neatly noted in the Carnegie program) and a special gown designed for the occasion by Vivienne Westwood.

It would take someone far more fashion-literate than I to worthily describe the bright red concoction that she wore, but suffice it to say that it constantly metamorphosed during the afternoon eventually ending up with a bottom half at least six feet across, perhaps to invoke costumes worn by the 17th and 18th prima donne for whom the music she sang was written. Yet, any intended diva hauteur disappeared yesterday as she tripped on the dress during an entrance, later making a winningly self-deprecating crack about it.

Some dissenting voices have bemoaned a concert (or CD) devoted entirely to “baroque arias,” yet Drama Queens includes music composed from 1643 to 1787; does a nearly 150 year span really represent unvaried programming? The tour did not feature the latest piece on the CD—from Haydn’s Armida—as there were no horns included in the accomplished original-instrument orchestra which accompanied DiDonato, fifteen members of the Italian-based Il Complesso Barocco, led by first violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky.

A piece of gay argot now routinely appropriated by the general populace, a drama queen is an intensely emotional person (not necessarily a biological female) who over-reacts to even minor events. While this might not accurately describe the characters or situations featured on her CD, DiDonato whole-heartedly embraced the term around which she built a concept-program of 17th and 18th century arias for royal personages, although the inclusion of sorceresses Alcina and Armida might be taking that nomenclature a bit far.

As she evolved into the world’s go-to Rossini mezzo, some might have expected DiDonato to leave behind her pre-bel canto repertoire. Instead she has made it clear that she has no intention of doing so, which is only right since these works must have been what introduced her to many listeners, particularly via her many recordings with il Complesso Barocco under its conductor Alan Curtis.

I seem to recall first seeing the name “Joyce DiDonato” in the fall of 2003 when she was announced as the replacement for Anna Bonitatibus in Curtis’s tour and recording of Handel’s Radamisto. Who was this unknown (to me) American who would be taking over the title role from the wonderful Bonitatibus? I was perturbed, to say the least. Soon enough, however, I heard both that Radamisto and Amor e gelosia, the superb CD of rarely performed Handel duets she and Patrizia Ciofi recorded with Curtis earlier that summer of 2003.

In particular her Radamisto in the rarer, higher first version of 1720 served notice that an exceptional Handel singer had arrived on the scene. Yet, truth be told, even then it was clear that this was not necessarily the most beautiful instrument—it tends toward lean rather than rich—but one used with a keen musical intelligence and a formidable technique, particularly for florid singing including one of the best trills in the business which was effortlessly shown off during Sunday’s concert.

Then in the summer of 2004 DiDonato starred as Dejanira in Luc Bondy’s production of Handel’s oratorio Hercules with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, a fearless, no-holds-barred interpretation preserved on video from later performances at the Paris Opera.

However, when that production arrived in the US at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2006, I was alerted to an aspect of DiDonato’s art that continues to trouble me. Undoubtedly Bondy’s direction influenced her hysterics there, but occasionally DiDonato does strain for an intensity that drives the voice to become ugly. I had similar reservations about her generally well-received Komponist in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos a few years ago at the Met struck me as effortful and strident rather than rapt and radiant.

This tendency occurs less often in her excursions into 17th and 18th music; however, it did crop up at moments during Sunday’s concert, perhaps encouraged on by violinist Sinkovsky, whose flamboyant bobbing-and-weaving (almost all of the orchestra played standing) more than once threatened to upstage his mezzo collaborator. In addition, his leading of the orchestra clearly subscribed to the “the faster, the better” school of baroque performing practice which in turn prompted DiDonato to occasionally become harsh and rushed, particularly in an aria by Orlandini and the excerpt from Handel’s Alessandro. Though many of the arias’s violin obbligato lines were sensitively if ostentatiously done, Sinkovsky’s solo Vivaldi concerto was brutally unpleasant.

Through the years she has continued her close relationship with Handel and Il Complesso Barocco, recording Floridante (where she’s wonderful as Elmira but the recording is torpedoed by a disastrous Marjana Mijanovic in the title role), Alcina (a somewhat controversial take on the soprano title role—what one might have given to have had the Morgana—Karina Gauvin—as Alcina with DiDonato instead as Ruggiero?), and last year’s Ariodante.

All were conducted by Il Complesso Barocco’s founder Alan Curtis whose absence from the Drama Queens tour has been startling. It’s no secret that mystery writer Donna Leon has been a long-time financial supporter of the orchestra, particularly its recording projects (which now include thirteen complete Handel operas alone). However, there have been rumblings that Leon has become unhappy (possibly based on disappointing reviews of the Ariodante recording and tour) and may be throwing her considerable fame and fortune instead behind other projects and performers; her involvement in Cecilia Bartoli’s recent Mission and her rumored support of Riccardo Minasi’s new orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro (renamed by one wag Il Pomodoro) have only added to the whispers.

And the first-ever American appearances of Il Complesso Barocco without its US-born founder have done nothing to squelch those murmurings. (By the way, the essay about Il Complesso Barocco in the Carnegie Hall program was in error; the group was not founded in 1979; its historic revival and recording of Handel’s Admeto occurred in 1977.)

While I admit to having often complained about Curtis’s conducting, I actually missed him Sunday afternoon. On the Drama Queens CD, under his direction arias that seemed hectic at Carnegie Hall flowed more naturally, allowing DiDonato to respond with more relaxed performances that serve both her and the music better. When I first heard the CD several weeks before Sunday’s concert, I immediately thought it one of Curtis’s best recent efforts.

The highlights of both the concert and the CD were several of the slower arias, particularly a wrenching piece from Ifigenia in Aulide by Giovanni Porta. In it, Ifigenia is about to go serenely to her death and begs her mother to embrace her one final time and, most remarkably, implores Clytemnestra to forgive her husband Agamemnon for sacrificing her for the greater good. Just imagine if Ifigenia had been successful: no Oresteia!

The quietly ravishing scene from Cesti’s Orontea seemed an odd way to open the concert, but it proved a powerful argument for questioning the long-standing preference across the globe for the works of Cavalli over those of his contemporary Cesti. The other 17th century piece, the first of Ottavia’s intense monologues from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, didn’t work very well out of context, plus the churning continuo of harpsichord, two cellos, bass and theorbo more than once threatened to overpower DiDonato. A magical encore from Keiser’s Fredegunda “Lasciami piangere” touched me more than the cascades of “speed-of-light” coloratura fireworks from more Orlandini and Handel which followed it after the printed program had ended.

As electric and exciting as Sunday’s concert proved to be at moments, the CD preserves a more comprehensively satisfying experience of Joyce DiDonato at her very best in thirteen drama-queen-y snapshots of “extravagant overreaction” which is—after all—what opera is all about.

  • Sempre liberal

    What happened to the MET Opera on Sirius tonight? We got Act 1 of Un Ballo, then an intermission feature, then the whole thing went silent and a few seconds later, we are in the middle of a Gluck Orfeo recording. Bizarre.

    • phoenix

      I just turned it on (9:10 pm EST) and they were broadcasting the Ballo -- in the middle of ‘Teco io sto’ duet.

  • semira mide

    In fact yesterday’s performance in NYC was not the last of the tour. Tomorrow night they are all in Sonoma (CA)

    Amazing that they can keep up the pace. They clearly enjoyed what they were doing yesterday -- it was really thrilling to be part of it.

  • phoenix

    I must have it -- so I can lay it on my coffee table for the holidays!

  • vilbastarda

    Thank you DeCaffarrelli for your superb, and well informed review.

    I’ve been struggling all day to put into words my conflicting feelings after yesterday’s concert: the conflict between my love for JDD’s artistry and personality, and the perceived haphazardness and self indulgence that she displayed at Carnegie Hall. But your words bring clarity to my thoughts. I hope that she didn’t get to the high point where she thinks that everything goes, and I hope she will continue to carefully polish her artistry, even if her voice is less than perfect at times. Only this way we can continue to be awed by future endeavours of this artist.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    I was listening to Sirius this afternoon and heard some horrible soprano warbling the “È strano” and “Ah, fors’è lui”. It was a modern recorording and I could not endure the basically upleasant sound of her voice, so I turned it off. Doing so, I realized that the young singers today who don’t have the curiousity and craving to hear the truly great singers of past generations are modeling their sound on these defective divas who have only been recorded in digital sound for CD (worse) various compressed sound formats. I’m very discouraged by the basic lack of beauty of their sound and vapid artistry of such singers, and often left with with an apathetic reaction to the singing of Ms Di Donato as well.

  • zinka

    I have seen many recitals in my life..BUT I must say that the two with Di Donato I saw were absolutely RIVETING…..I find her one of the greats in any era……I am also pleased to have her lips on a Barber program…(she had no pen0 so I can sell them some day for a buck 98..

    I love the gal!!!! CH

  • stevey

    Thank you, DeCaffarrelli, (O master of the Vocal Identification Quiz… and at this point might I humbly (and hopefully) inquire as to whether you’ve perhaps been feeling so-inclined lately?? :-) ), for yet another well-written, thorough, informative, and very helpful review. I had noticed the release of this particular disc, but it barely registered a blip on my proverbial radar. Now, my interest is a little more piqued, and I’ll definitely give it a try.
    Re: DiDonato. She’s unquestionably an incredibly talented and technically gifted singer, with on top of it all a very winning persona both on stage and off. As such, it’s great to see such a positive performer reach the apex of her abilities (as it seems she is doing)… but what am I missing about her that of all that I HAVE seen her in has left me completely and absolutely indifferent and ambivalent about her??
    I recognize that perhaps it’s merely that her choices of repertoire aren’t in any way my cup of tea, which would be true (Frederica Von Stade is another artist who registers similarly with me) but that which I have tried DiDonato on just did nothing for me- her ‘Stuarda’ Elisabetta (admittedly from 2005, the Geneva production opposite the Maria of Gabriele Fontana, which is available in full on YouTube and which I will post for anybody interested at the end of this diatribe), while correct, I found boring and I actually managed to beg, borrow, blackmail, and steal pirates of no less than THREE separate performances of her Houston ‘Maria’ debut (I got the two in April, and the one on May 4th), just because I couldn’t believe that the off-pitch, at-best-‘agreeable’-yet-hardly-exciting, and on the whole thoroughly flaccid performance was from the same wonderful DiDonato who by all accounts absolutely wows hers listeners at every recital she gives. Yet so it was.
    Perhaps needless to say, I am warily looking forward to her upcoming Met Stuarda. I love the opera- that Confrontation Scene alone is the stuff Opera Queens are born, bred, and made for and, while I’m predicting a critical and public success, I can’t help but think that that will be simply because it’s the Met’s first performance of the work at all, and really can’t imagine how either Joyce’s Maria, nor her Elisabetta (Met debutante Elza Van den Heever, who premiered this role a few days ago in Frankfurt… alas, I’ve been scouring and scouring the internet looking for any kind of review but have come up empty) providing the kind of fireworks that I feel the opera- especially considering it’s the first for the company in its history- warrants and deserves. But then, I’m tired… so more apt to tend on the side of the cynical, and hope that I’m wrong.
    On another note, I notice that La DiDonato’s repertoire also includes Adalgisa… now THAT’S a role that I’d REALLY love to hear her in!! Accordingly, I did a little digging and found that her debut in the role was as recent as 2010, opposite no less than Edita Gruberova as Norma. There are clips available on YouTube which I’m chomping at the bit to check out… I’m hoping that they’ll change my tune when it comes to how I feel about her upcoming Maria!!

    Here’s the YouTube video of that aforementioned complete ‘Maria Stuarda’, as promised. Again, it’s from 2005. The duelling monarchs are Gabriele Fontana and Joyce DiDonato (as protagonist and antagonist, respectively), and Eric Cutler as their love interest, Leicester.

    • aulus agerius

      I attended the Houston Stuarda matinee 4/28 with great expectations and I have to say I was less than wowed. After DJS I think MDevia is probably the best historically.

    • Bianca Castafiore

      stevey, some of us had said before that diDonato leaves us cold, in spite of the great technique and vocal gifts she has. I certainly don’t get her,but maybe her upcoming MS will change that.

  • armerjacquino

    “If you’re the sort who prefers his diva to be an unapproachable sphinx prone to infuriating cancellations while radiating ennui, I suspect that the sunny, hard-working, grateful persona of American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato will not appeal to you at all.”

    Fight! Fight! Fight!

    *gathers rest of playground into a circle*

  • operaspike

    For those in the Northern California/San Francisco region, Joyce DeDonato brings her “Drama Queens” to the new Weill Hall at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University TONIGHT, Tuesday the 20th at 8:00PM. Located just three miles east of Hwy 101 in Rohnert Park in Sonoma County. Good seats are still available. Also check out the other great artists on the inaugural season at Weill Hall. Hope to see you there.

  • MontyNostry

    Joyce’s inspiration for the DQ look?

    • Camille

      Monsieur Monty—

      In the States, DQ is shorthand for Dairy Queen, a once popular hamburger stand chain that specialized in ersatz mil-based treats of the overly sweet variety. Everyone has been to one as a kid.

      • Camille

        MilK-based, as in la leche.

        • MontyNostry

          … as opposed to milf-based, Camille, dear?

          • Camille


            Good catch there, Monsieur Monty.

            Once more, it was my husband that started the MILF business, not I. My mistake was in repeating the remark in the presence of La Cieca. At the time I wondered why her eyes sparkled so and her face was lit up in smiles but soon I was to find out why.

  • tiger1dk

    “although the inclusion of sorceresses Alcina and Armida might be taking that nomenclature a bit far” Well, isnt Alcina queen (or at least ruler) of her island and Armida of her garden?
    Since JDD sings Haydn on her new CD, I wonder if she could also have added some Mozart? Any Mozart queens that would be within her compass (so QofN is out….)?

    • MontyNostry

      Vitellia is a would-be queen (Empress).

  • Camille

    The dedicatee of Donna Leon’s 15th in the series of Guido Brunetti mysteries, Through a Glass, Darkly is “For Cecilia Bartoli”.

    The 19th, A Question of Belief is inscribed “For Joyce DiDonato”.

    Touchingly, the third installment Dressed for Death was dedicated thus:
    “To the memory of Arleen Auger
    a perished sun”.

    I don’t know if this helps at all but I just had to get it investigated and close the case.
    The latest book’s dedicatee I don’t know of as I haven’t yet purchased it.