It is always good to welcome Joyce DiDonato back to London. This concert was based around her recent Drama Queens album which took baroque royalty in various moods, ranging from quiet contemplation to insane fury as its theme. DiDonato is an exceptional recitalist both vocally but also in that she has the ability to make even a large hall such as the Barbican feel like an intimate venue. For the tour, DiDonato had commissioned a truly spectacular red frock from Vivienne Westwood and there was a lovely touch with the male members of Il Complesso Barocco all wearing red socks to match the dress.
This was the second London recital in two days to commence with “Intorno all’idol mio” from Antonio Cesti’s Orontea. The fictional Queen of Egypt languidly observes her sleeping lover and luxuriates in the vision of male beauty. This first section is a fairly standard baroque concert item. However here we get the full version of the scene with the Queen plagued by doubts about the reciprocation of her love and insecurities relating to her royal position. The final section shows the Queen accepting her fate, even if that be death and separation from her love. DiDonato encompassed the sensuous observation of her lover and later the onset of doubts in cleanly etched emotion. One of her great abilities as a recitalist (and an opera singer) is that the audience knows instantly what her character is feeling and this communication is accomplished without resort to cheap tricks or artifice.
The next queen on the list was the rejected Empress Ottavia who has been passed over for the more obvious, fleshly charms of Poppea. At the gates of Rome Ottavia laments not only her own fate but that of all wronged women. The words and imagery of the text are extraordinarily rich – “Se concepiamo l’uomo, o delle donne miserabil sesso, all nostr’empio tiran formiam le membra, allattiamo il carnefice crudel che ci scarna e ci svena…” (“If we conceive a man-child, O unhappy female sex, we shape the limbs of our own wicked tyrant, we suckle the cruel torturer who will flay us and bleed us to death”) Strong stuff even today and DiDonato spat out her rage and frustration at finding herself powerless to fight her unjust fate.
Later in the scena Ottavia calls on Jove to answer why he has not punished the guilty tyrant, Nero and accuses the God of impotence. However she immediately repents her rashness and resigns herself to a life of silent suffering. Some of the other memorable moments of DiDonato’s interpretation were the dying fall on “afflitta moglie” and the sense of her broken spirit on the line “..dentro alle tue delizie..”. Opera managements should be queuing up to book her to do the whole role.
Irene, yet another spurned queen laments her fate in somewhat gentler, more tear-laden terms in “Sposa, son disprezzata” a fragment from Giacomelli’s Merope which survives thanks to the magpie habits of many baroque composers. In this case the magpie was Vivaldi who recycled the aria for his pasticcio Bajazet. Here DiDonato luxuriated in the grateful, long spun lines and the elegantly decorated reprised lines but never sacrificed drama on the altar of beauty.
Il Complesso Barocco played several items between vocal numbers – I do not intend to review most of them but I can’t let the opportunity pass to praise Dmitry Sinkovsky’s astounding playing of Vivaldi’s Concerto (“Per Pisendel”) for violin and to note the excellent playing of the whole ensemble (which Sinkovsky also led) throughout the evening.
The last item in the first half was the aria “Da torbida procella” which is sung by the title character in Orlandini’s opera Berenice, which employs the oft used image of a storm-tossed ship to convey the situation of the protagonist. Although the subject of one of Racine’s greatest plays (unusually not climaxing in multiple fatalities but in the quiet acceptance of fate) opera goers tend to be more familiar with Queen Berenice as a potent offstage presence in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito. At this point in the plot quiet acceptance is the last thing on the queen’s mind yet she still hopes that the shared love with Tito will guide her to safe harbour. The fast, extremely virtuosic music potently conjures up the image of the queen at the centre of a raging emotional storm, hurling her defiance of fate into the teeth of the tempest. Here DiDonato was dazzling in the complex roulades and descending flurries of notes but did not stint on the moments of tenderness in the central section.
The opening of the second half gave us the opportunity to compare two very different interpretations of one of the ancient world’s most potent characters - Cleopatra. Hasse’s version finds Cleopatra at the final chapter of her story. Trapped with the dying Antony she faces a stark choice of humiliating captivity at the hands of her enemy Octavius Caesar or death by her own hand. The scena “Morte col fiero aspetto” leaves no doubt which path she will choose. A bizarre aspect to Hasse’s version of the story was that the part of Cleopatra was originally performed by the great Farinelli with Marc’Antonio being essayed by Vittoria Testa! Clearly the composer put fine singing well ahead of dramatic verisimilitude.
For a much more rounded view of Cleopatra one must look to Handel’s immortal version. Here Cleopatra, captured by her murderous brother Tolomeo and believing her beloved Caesar to be dead, first laments her fate in aching long lines. But then, in stark contrast, she vows that her angry shade will haunt her brother for the rest of his days. DiDonato cleverly differentiated between the older Cleopatra at the end of the road seizing on the only honourable exit and the much younger queen in Handel, far from ready to relinquish her life and determined on revenge, even if it is from the afterlife! She achieved this both by subtle acting and by almost completely altering the colour of her vocal palette. It takes a great artist to do this without appearing studied or fake.
A more serene acceptance of fate (in this case enforced sacrifice by her own father) is embodied by Ifigenia in a scene from Giovanni Porta’s setting of the much adapted Euripides play. A pathos laden introduction leads to the doomed princess’ pleading with her outraged mother to accept her daughter’s fate as she already has done. There is an extraordinary ‘time stands still’ moment at the opening of the reprise of the line “Madre diletta, abbracciami” and this was breathtakingly sung by DiDonato who also completely conveyed the self-sacrificing teenager pleading with her mother to accept her fate.
After so much bloodstained tragedy it was a relief to encounter a queen caught in full (if slightly hysterical) celebratory joy. The dazzling roulades of Rossane’s “Brilla nell’alma” from Handel’s Alessandro were designed to show off the technique of Faustina Bordoni and DiDonato delivered in spadefuls. My only slight quibble (and I have noted this before) is a seeming unwillingness to let rip on the final notes. It is not that the climaxes are undersung but I would love her to open out just a little bit more for the final thrill.
There were three generous encores, opening with Reinhard Keiser’s “Lasciami piangere”, a long spun meditation on weeping and death. This was another chance for DiDonato to hold the house breathless with a display of sustained piano singing and she didn’t disappoint. She followed with another aria from Orlandini’s Berenice, this time finding the queen in the throes of fury at her rejection by Tito. DiDonato brought the house down with a dazzling display of virtuosic fury and then proceeded to repeat the second section “Brilla nell’alma” to round off the evening.
This was a top notch recital in every way, both for the singing and playing but also for the ferocious and questing intelligence applied to the programming of the repertoire. One must be hugely grateful to DiDonato and her collaborators for sharing the project with us.
Photographs © Josef Fischnaller/ Virgin