Joyce DiDonato is very obviously a great favourite with London audiences, and on the very day we finally officially emerged – pro tem, at least – from eighteen months of recession by the magnificent margin of point squit of a zillionth, it was nice actually to encounter something quite so uncomplicatedly positive as her recital. Opera singers, in the up-close and personal context of a recital room, fall into extremely contrasting categories, ranging from the all-singing, all-dancing Ethel Merman-esque firecrackers (Cecilia Bartoli) to the half-barmy and catatonic (um, better exercise some discretion here, I suppose) by way of sassy, sweet ‘n simple, straightforward or sepulchral, the raunchy or the reverential, the bullish or the businesslike. This has nothing whatever directly to do with their voice as such, rather the personality through which it is communicated, so that it is quite possible on the one hand to encounter a singer of merely middling vocal gift who is nevertheless dynamite in performance, on the other a truly great voice that barely manages to register up against inhibitions of character and uncertainty of platform manner. Oh, how I’m itching to name names! Moving on…..
Ms. DiDonato falls effortlessly into that happiest of categories marked “absolutely natural”, manifesting neither a desperate need to pleasure an audience into gurgling submission, nor seeking to inflate the medium into a form of sedulous religious observance. She is simply great fun to watch, easy to relate to, unpretentious in demeanour, chatty but not gabby, and absolutely focussed artistically despite her deceptively relaxed appearance. It’s a winning combination. It is the art that conceals art, rather than parades it ostentatiously around for greybeard approval (go on: insert your own bête noir here; you know you want to…..). Even so, for all that an evening in Ms. DiDonato’s company is considerably more cheering than any contemplation of the state of the British economy, in or out of recession, I would be failing in such critical duties as one has if I didn’t enter a few caveats. The programme itself, entitled “Three Centuries of Amore” (which is what the British economy will take to recover, if you ask me) was an interesting amalgam of the exceedingly tried and tested, and the utterly unheard of; and fell into two halves, the former comprising a trawl through Parisotti’s familiar collection of (occasionally fake) Arie antiche, the latter some early C20th Italian art-songs by the likes of Santoliquido, Toselli, and Buzzi-Peccia. Er, quite.
The half-dozen arie antiche openers functioned as rather more than the usual vocal warm-up – though they are that too – and found the mezzo in good, strong voice from the outset, though, I have to say, I increasingly fail to hear on what possible grounds she describes herself as a mezzo in the first place, sounding to me much more like a soprano, both in terms of range and timbre. Not that it matters, except insofar as it of course governs her career and repertoire choices. In any event, she essayed a long crescendo at the start of Caccini’s exquisite Amarilli mia bella that would have been exemplary but for having started too loud, and drew a long, fervently felt but inward line through the whole piece, only slightly marred by very indistinct trills indistinguishable from a mere vocal flutter, rather than the more clearly articulated alternation of two distinct notes a semitone apart. (Though to be fair, if I’d had a fiver for every diva I’ve ever heard singing arie antiche who didn’t have a proper trill, the British economy would have never gotten into this state.) Five Beethoven songs set to mainly Metastasio texts followed – ariettas, in Italian – that, despite normally being credited to the years of his symphonic maturity (1809) are plainly student pieces, and one of which – "T’intendo, si, mio cor" – actually quotes the fourth line of the Countess’ "Dov’è sono?" (di quell labbro menzogner) note-for-note. Ms. DiDonato sang them with her characteristically very shallow vibrato, which is stylistically appropriate, but does rather rob the voice of much possibility of adding colouration to the sound.
For the final scheduled item of the first half, Desdemona’s Willow Song and Prayer from Rossini’s Otello, the pianist David Zobel was joined by the harpist Lucy Wakeford. Here, finally, one felt, the singer was absolutely at home (in an Isabella Colbran role, still at this point in her career – 1816 - indisputably a soprano, please note). Ms. DiDonato doesn’t naturally have the innate mestizia quality of timbre – hers is bright and forward – that made Frederica von Stade’s various accounts of the piece so very moving; nor does she have the rich pastoso sound – hers is lean and clean-cut - that Caballé brought to it. But operating without built-in vocal advantage in the piece, she found the heart of it truly, and what her sound alone was unable to conjure, her deeply felt visible response and body language most certainly could, and did. Better still, she decided to make good use of the unusual forces at her temporary disposal, and, asking us to forgive the break with protocol whilst reassuring everyone that their interval drinks would not spoil, she gave us an exquisitely poised account of Anna’s "preghiera" from Act I of Rossini’s Maometto II, "Giusto ciel, in tal periglio" (aka. Pamira’s aria from L’assedio di Corinto). This sent everybody out in a state of great well-being and pleasant anticipation at the discoveries ahead.
Alas, at least in terms of the printed programme, this was not particularly forthcoming. As the man behind me opined to his companion mid-way through: “Lovely artist. Shame about the music.”. Indeed, Francesco Santoliquido may well have been a prodigy of sorts, writing both the poetry and music for his 1908 song-cycle I canti della sera (Evening Songs) and, as Anthony Burton’s invaluable programme notes informed us all, writing a fine study of then-modern music concentrating on the post-Wagnerian dichotomy that was opening up between Debussy and Strauss. Unfortunately, his own music is the very merest sub-Puccinian small-change, pleasant, utterly unremarkable and never really rising to the challenge of his own purple poesie, though both the mezzo, and her more hard-worked pianist rose to such challenges as it offered. In the following group of five songs, the sole specimen by Ildebrando Pizzetti – Oscuro è il ciel – from the early 1930s immediately sounded like a wake-up call in terms of quality, and could with profit have been further explored rather than instantly supplanted by more salon slops from Toselli and Donaudy. Even the better known pair of snappy, sly songs by Castelnuovo-Tedesco did little to raise the prevalent aura of musical déjà-vu that was beginning to settle in as we progressed through what might have been more aptly called “Canzonetti: the Mussolini Years”.
The closing group of four songs comprised Buzzi-Peccia’s Lolita (nothing, alas, to do with Nabokov’s novel: rather, a Spanish serenade from 1906 once popularised by Caruso, no less); Leoncavallo’s French serenade – a notable step-up in musical quality, this – and a most chromatically aching Canto arabo, written in the 1930s by Barbara Giuranna (apparently a noted pedagogue and composer based at the Rome Conservatory) which found the mezzo in high imaginative mode, virtually crooning the sultry vocal line effectively without vibrato throughout, an absolute test of inherent musicality in terms of staying in tune and one which she sailed through sounding effortless (though I bet it wasn’t). Last up, a real Diva de l’Empire type music-hall number by Vincenzo di Chiara entitled La Spagnola (The Spanish Lady, which would have been the title of Elgar’s only opera, to the same source play as Strauss’ Die schweigsame Frau, if only he’d carried on with it to completion) which found Ms. DiDonato in high holiday humour, mildly camping up the first-person narrative of Spain’s sexiest woman of a certain age advertising her allure (funny as she was, I can’t help thinking that it would be all the funnier sung by an actual Spanish lady of a certain age, and really wish it was a piece Caballé had ever encountered in her endless musical voyagings. I can easily imagine the effect it would have created, not so much camp as cosmic).
Devoted enthusiasm produced two encores. For the first, Ms. DiDonato explained that it would be difficult to perform in her dress – her second of the evening, and which I wondered momentarily whether she was actually therefore proposing to remove: was she going to sing Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody? – but instead she added a black bow-tie to her otherwise bare neck and sang, in hang-dog juvenile mode, Cherubino’s "Voi che sapete" to perfection. She then reappeared, and, for the umpteenth time in my recital-going career, then produced the very best singing of the evening, in the shape of Elena’s "Tanti affetti" from Rossini’s La donna del lago - another Colbran role, this time 1819 - every note in place, grupetti (slightly smudged earlier) absolutely clean, and with far more secure and identifiable-as-such trills. It was a wonderful end to proceedings, and provided the most mouth-watering trailer imaginable for Covent Garden’s forthcoming staging of the work with her and Florez, a fact which she, having taste (or a contractual embargo) did not mention. Not labouring under such conditions myself, I’d advise you to sign up at the ROH for whatever category of “Friend” – Deadly Determined? DiDonato-Desperate? – that will get you into what is bound to be the hottest ticket of its time next season. You have been warned…