Harmony of contrasts
Programming in solo CDs can range from the banal to the fascinating. On the one hand, one cannot fault the record companies for releasing single-composer arias discs that they know will move copies. After all, who doesn’t want to hear Anna or Jonas sing their way through Verdi and Puccini’s greatest hits?
On the other hand, singers like Joyce DiDonato repeatedly mine the repertoire for rarities which have not already been recorded dozens of time. And DiDonato always thinks thematically in putting a CD program together. Even her all-Rossini album focused on roles associated with Isabella Colbran, Rossini’s muse and wife. There was no Barbiere or Cenerentola to be found on that disc.
Her latest album, In War & Peace: Harmony through music, is more specific than it sounds. She doesn’t just randomly take arias to do with war and peace. The “harmony through music” part is taken seriously and all of it is approached through the lens of Baroque opera. The first seven arias comprise the War section with the latter eight making up the Peace half. For her selections, DiDonato offers a mix of the familiar and rare.
Yes, we have Dido’s Lament but we also have two arias from Attilo Regolo by Niccolo Jommelli, a prolific composer of some 60 opera serie. These two arias and one from fellow Neapolitan Leonardo Leo’s Andromaca are billed by as “world premiere recordings”.
Her partners in crime, the Italian Baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, led by principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, do splendid work throughout.
The musicians here are all very much on the same musical page, observing historically informed Baroque practices. DiDonato incorporates Baroque embellishment and inflection expertly. But her singing is never “precious” and the historically informed singing never turns into an academic exercise. Her greatest gift lies in her ability to take her considerable skills and put them all at the service of pure artistic and emotional expression.
From the opening pluck of the theorbo, this album is engaging. Selections by Handel book-end the album, with the aria “Scenes of horror, scenes of woe” from the oratorio Jephtha setting the scene, and Cleopatra’s optimistic “Da tempeste il legno infranto” giving the program an all’s-well-that-ends-well coda. There is further healing with the inclusion of a bonus track, Sesto’s “Cara speme”, sensitively intoned by DiDonato .
After the opening track, DiDonato rips into “Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro!” from Leo’s Andromaca with delicious gusto, spitting her consonants with vehemence. It is one of the highlights of the album and makes one curious to hear more of Leonardo Leo (presumably, Leo² to his peeps). Sesto’s indignation in the familiar “Svegliatevi nel core” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare is mixed with touching frailty.
After the feisty first three tracks, things slow down with the gracious “They tell us you mighty powers above” from Purcell’s The Indian Queen, one of four selections by the English composer. DiDonato shows great affinity for the composer’s music in all four, singing with style and feeling.
Tensions hit a peak with my favourite track of the album, Handel’s extraordinary aria “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” from Agrippina. Here, Nerone’s mother is filled with foreboding even though her plans appear to be going well. Alternating between recitative and aria, it is a self-contained mini-drama. The orchestra gives a searing accompaniment to DiDonato ’s mesmerizing portrayal. The word “pensieri” is uttered thrice with increasingly florid melisma, the final one on a 17-second breath that is a thing of beauty.
Next come the two most familiar arias and they close the War section of the album. Though “When I am laid in earth” and “Lascia ch’io pianga” are both sad arias, they are contrasting in mood. The desolation of Dido’s great lament leads gorgeously into the serenity of the aria from Rinaldo (the recitative is omitted so as not to break the spell in between the two arias).
DiDonato sings both arias with great sensitivity and attention to text. Her Dido seems to expire as she is singing, the final “forget my fate” delivered sans trill and fading into the orchestra. “Lascia” is beautifully touching and, as she does throughout the album, DiDonato offers delicate phrasing and subtle dynamics.
The Peace half of the album opens with the least familiar Purcell selection, “Oh! Lead me to some peaceful gloom” from his last major work, Bonduca, or the British Heroine. This is an arresting aria that makes one want to hear more from the work.
The two arias from Jommeli’s Attilo Regolo give a DiDonato chance to show off her excellent coloratura chops, delivering passagework with speed and accuracy, while the lengthy aria from Handel’s oratorio Susanna (“Crystal streams in murmurs flowing”) is balm to the soul.
When I saw Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria on the track list, I was rather hoping to hear some of Penelope’s emotionally charged music though, to be honest, I’m not sure how excerpt-able those passages are. Instead we get the lovely “Illustratevi, o cieli”, part of the duet that sees Ulysses and Penelope finally reunited.
DiDonato ’s Cleopatra is not really vocally differentiated from her Sesto, but “Da tempeste” is joyfully delivered, and she closes it with a wink at the audience, throwing in a nod to Rosina’s “Uno voce poca fa” in the final cadenza.
Almost 20 years into her professional career, Joyce DiDonato is in peak form here. Her less than opulent, though still attractive, tone suits this repertoire well and she deploys the full range of her vocal abilities with meticulous detail. Her top is not as easy as it used to be, and what she has lost on top, she hasn’t necessarily gained at the bottom. But here is a complete artist working at the height of her interpretive powers. In selection after selection, DiDonato offers singing that is as emotionally engaged as it is musically scrupulous. Brava!