I just arrived back from Stella di Napoli’s. No, not an Italian bistro in the suburbs, but rather the title given to celebrated mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s recital programme of rare bel canto gems.
Performing at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées as part of a whirlwind international tour, Ms. DiDonato—also known as “Yankee Diva” on social media—is at the top of her game, vocally speaking. She continues to exude charm and enthusiasm, as if this were her first turn at bat, while at the same time harnessing her resources as only a pro could manage.
Following a rousing rendition of Rossini’s overture to Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra (hint: identical to the overture for Il barbiere di Siviglia!) by l’Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon under the direction of the passionate yet erratic Riccardo Minasi, DiDonato made her entrance, appearing fresh and relaxed despite performing this same demanding program at London’s Barbican just two days prior.
She began outside the realm of the bel canto trifecta (Rossini-Bellini-Donizetti) with an aria from Stella di Napoli by Giovanni Pacini, who once admitted his operas (largely forgotten today) were “rather superficial.” Yet DiDonato charged the aria with considerable intensity.
Next came rarities from Bellini—Adelson e Salvini—and Rossini—a riveting scene from Zelmira, as well as a snippet from Le Nozze di Lammermoor. No, not Donizetti but rather Carafa. A pleasure indeed to accompany DiDonato through uncharted territory, with no sign anywhere of ‘Una voce poco fa.’
It is all well and good to praise DiDonato for her characteristic zest, yet it is important to emphasize that the core of her success lies in her superb musicianship and technique. In taking on this bel canto treasure hunt, DiDonato is following in the footsteps of revered mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, though in all honesty the former is a more vocally appealing tour guide, at least at this stage.
The second act introduced a third forgotten composer, Mercadante, as well as a poignant excerpt from his opera, La Vestale. Yet the real fireworks emerged in a blistering aria from Donizetti’s Elisabetta al castello.
DiDonato appeared genuinely touched by the euphoric reception from the discriminating Champs-Élysées crowd, and after showing off her most grateful French, offered an encore from a role DiDonato has been conquering all over the world, often with tenor superstar Juan Diego Flórez (including at the Met in 2015), the title character in Rossini’s La Donna del Lago. More vocal fireworks had all cylinders firing for the cabaletta runs.
Minasi and his band warmed up significantly following the intermission, eliciting ovations after striking accounts of Bellini’s overture to Norma and Verdi’s Alzira. That the conductor and diva had rapport was evidenced by their comfort with one another onstage. After a cell phone chimed momentarily, Minasi pantomimed to the audience (“turn it off!”) while DiDonato chuckled. However, I must note that there were a few moments during which Minasi allowed his players to overwhelm out the star attraction.
But what a thrill for Paris to host the Yankee Diva—a singer whose solid technique forms a foundation upon which she can project the joy of singing. In addition, she can now legitimately claim to be a trailblazer for performing unheard bel canto, and no doubt the vocal arts will be better off as a result of her efforts.