Have you ever seen a world renowned opera singer sitting patiently at the back corner of the stage for a good fifteen minutes while waiting for the audience to fill the auditorium? The term “anti-diva” as epithet of Joyce DiDonato has been used extensively, but really that’s the first appellative coming to mind when entering in contact with her extraordinary presence. All about her is genuine passion for her job, and no trace of a primadonna demeanor.
The programme, with the title “In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music”, presented a series of arias and instrumental pieces by baroque composers with a predominant presence of Handel’s arias. The fil rouge of the pieces were the internal battles that a human soul may face in the course of its life, encompassing the spectrum of emotions that goes from rage and despair to relief and elation.
Joyce DiDonato was accompanied on stage by the young orchestra il pomo d’oro, which specialises in period instruments and was conducted by the 29 years old Maxim Emelyanychev. The presence of choreographer and dancer Manuel Palazzo added a visual element to the show.
Although based on baroque repertoire, the aesthetic of the show was a modern one, with the mezzo-soprano wearing two somewhat futuristic Vivienne Westwood’s gowns matched by eccentric make up, like a painter’s colours’ palette had been splashed into her face and neckline. The dancer was wearing a plain, long skirt-like outfit, while the projections on the walls were variously coloured, ornate and abstract silhouettes.
The common challenge of recitals – even for an experienced singer – is bringing to life arias outside of their dramatic and narrative context. Joyce DiDonato mastered this task beautifully throughout the evening, ensuring that this wasn’t simply an occasion to showcase her “24 carat gold” voice (The Times), but really a chance to actively engage the audience and make it part of a heartfelt performance.
It would be difficult to single out highlight pieces, except for mere personal preference. “Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro” (from Andromaca by Leonardo Leo) was delivered with dramatic strength and high pathos, as required by the grim lyrics. “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Rinaldo, Handel) was probably the most well known piece in the programme and possibly the most moving for the winning combination of a catchy melody, beautiful Italian lyrics and the quite personal interpretation of the singer. “Crystal streams in murmurs flowing” (from Handel’s oratorio Susanna) and “Augelletti che cantate” (again from Rinaldo) were simply delightful, offering a much needed light counterpoint to the previous gloomy and agitated arias. In this last piece Anna Fusek enthralled the audience with her recorder mimicking a bird’s song and playfully duetting with the singer’s voice.
The orchestra sounded, at once, impeccably polished and deeply passionate. Harmony was the real keyword of the performance, not last for a remarkable synchrony of the players.
With a speech preceding the last encore (“Morgen” by Richard Strauss), DiDonato provided more insight into the concert’s programme, attributing its original conception to the horror of the Paris attacks in November 2015. “I did now want to do something just for show”, she said, adding how she thought art was an effective medium to create peace.
The dancer was, on this occasion, like an expensive piece of jewellery worn by a young and beautiful woman: impressive on its own, but redundant and distracting in the final outfit. Both the singing and the music were indeed nothing short of perfection, delivering memorable musical fireworks.