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.