Fan service

It’s hard to come up with any sensible reason to dislike Joyce DiDonato. With performances at the Grammys, the last night of the proms, and HDs at the Met’s New Year’s gala, she’s become one of the most visible American opera singer of our time, second only to Renée Fleming. In recent years she has acquired a fan base of fierce devotion due in large part to her unprecedented and personal interactions with fans. In addition to a wonderfully detailed blog on which she recently took a stand for equal rights for the LGBT community, she has a YouTube channel dedicated to answering the questions of aspiring opera singers.

Her latest recording is a two-disc compilation of her first 10 years of recordings. In a rare move, she allowed her fans to come up with names for her CD and then vote for their favorites. The accompanying booklet even has pictures sent in from fans and it’s decked out with quotes from them as well. The result is a cornily named but very well sung album called Rejoyce! The Best of Joyce DiDonato that will delight all of her fans and serve as a warm welcome to those less familiar with her artistry.

The first disc is dedicated primarily to her work in Baroque period and earlier with a dash of Mozart thrown in for good measure. The disc opens with a well sung “Ombra mai fu,” but DiDonato does her finest Handelian singing on the disc in “Moriró, ma vendicata.” Those who heard her in The Enchanted Island two seasons past at the Metropolitan Opera will remember this as the sorceress Sycorax’s finger licking cavatina “Maybe soon.” The exquisite pianissimo singing and ornaments in the return of the A section in addition to excellent playing from the oboe echoing her voice and decorations make this one of the finest performances in the compilation.

Those familiar with her Handel album Furore or her gutsy reading of Dejanira in a fascinating production from the Opera National de Paris will be pleased to see her “Where shall I Fly” included. Earlier selections by Giacomelli, Porta, Vivaldi and especially Monteverdi in a fabulous reading of Ottavia’s “Addio Roma” will likewise delight early music enthusiasts and bore those who tire of the expressive tools readily available in that repertoire.

She caps the disc off with the finest “Voi che sapete” since Frederica von Stade, a “Parto, parto” with the most pristinely executed triplets I’ve ever heard in that aria, and a bizarre version of the duet just before the Act II Finale of Le nozze di Figaro in which she sings both Cherubino and Susanna. It’s interesting if slightly gimmicky and unnecessary, particularly given the magnificent Mozart singing she demonstrated in the other two selections from his operas. The one Mozart selection on the other disc also finds her in top form as Elvira in “Mi tradi” from Don Giovanni complete with an unbroken melisma à la Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Methinks the Met needs to mount some Mozart for Miss DiDonato.

Disc 2 opens with a jubilant and accurate “Amour, viens rendre à mon âme” and she puts her bel canto chops to to great use in a fiery and urgent account of Romeo’s “La tremenda ultrice spada,” but the bulk of the second disc is comprised of the Rossini that made DiDonato an operatic superstar. Indeed, her “Una voce poco fa” is currently best in the business by far, and her soulful interpretation of “Giusto ciel” and immaculate rendering of “Tanti affetti” make me very excited for the the prospect of finally hearing her in a dramatic Rossini vehicle as Elena in La Donna del Lago at the Met next season. Her masterful singing of ”Quis est homo” in the Rossini Stabat Mater is only slightly marred by the unidiomatic, labored mooing of Anna Netrebko.

The only real disappointments are in her forays into the full-out Romantic operas. Her oddly cold singing of “D’amour l’ardente flamme” did little to erase Susan Graham‘s searing account from my mind’s ear, and while Ariadne‘s Komponist may seem an ideal role for her, his aria finds DiDonato stretched to her vocal limits in much the way I noticed when she took on Maria Stuarda at the MET last season. The forte top takes on that unattractive bleat I found so jarring last winter.

For 20th century music, there are two pieces from Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, “You’ll Never Walk alone,” “Climb Every Mountain” and a particularly tedious rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” It’s unfortunate that the voice of such an honest singer can be so glacial in contemporary music. She sings the two showtunes honestly, but the instrument and her temperament do not suit these works. In one of those inevitable comparisons I found myself wishing she had an earthier instrument like Fleming’s for these songs, but coupled with her own less fussy interpretative abilities.

In “He Will Gather Us Around” (a short hymn from the Heggie opera) her Helen Prejean is more uptight choir girl than soulful southern nun. The other duet is not so nondescript as to question its inclusion, except that it briefly features von Stade in her last performance in an operatic role. As a Kansas native, DiDonato has tried to make Dorothy’s wistful lullaby her signature tune, but her tight vibrato and the overdone, grandiose orchestration do this simple song song no favors.

That said, the only other minor reservation I have about this collection is the repertoire included. Some of this may be the responsibility of the fans, as she allowed them to vote for many of the tracks that appear on the CDs, but with so much of this set dedicated to Handel, Rossini and Mozart (eight, five, and four tracks respectively or 17 tracks out of 31) I wondered why she didn’t just choose to either release one disc with less tracks of each of the aforementioned, or include a bit more variety. Perhaps there are copyright issues with her recording of Mark Adamo’s Little Women, but I would have loved to hear her definitive “Things change, Jo,” and a little more Romantic rep (Rosenkavalier? Cendrillon?) even though it isn’t always her strongest suit.

With those minor quibbles aside she is truly spectacular in the Handel, Mozart and Rossini arias and pretty damn good in most else, making this album well worth the price. She’s one of the finest singers and most generous operatic performers on the stage right now, and even with it’s shortcomings this collection lives up to her reputation.