Joyce DiDonato a totally modern diva

22 Apr
It has been quite some time since I saw Joyce DiDonato perform at The Wigmore Hall (27+29 January 2010). It has taken so long to put my thoughts down in writing.

I read about her on Alex Ross’s blog and the fact that he suggested her Colbran disc was for him the recording of 2009, made it an instant purchase. And what a great fireworks display that recording provides! She is captured in radiant voice storming through Rossini arias of extraordinary complexity from La Donna del Lago to Armida. She embodies the Rossinian heroines with an extraordinary wall of sound and a faultless legato. Reading through her blog entries I was terribly moved by her confessional writings and the wonderful insight in to her process of recording and bringing works to the stage. It all seemed unpretentious and truthful. So the next logical step was to book my tickets for the Wigmore Hall concert…and of course it was a sell out…so I kept refreshing the booking page for one day solid till two tickets materialised at Stalls K! I was absolutely delighted, but at the same time I had a small fear, that I may be disappointed by the live experience, having only heard her in a studio recording.

It is true that some singers are stage animals that don’t quite know how to inhabit the concert platform, but DiDonato proved on the night that she was quick witted, warm and devoted to the music at hand. Attributes that, for me, are really important for a truly successful recital.

The programme was made up of mostly obscure Neapolitan and southern Italian music about love and some interesting and fun pieces that showed off her fun personality. Her performance of Desdemona’s aria from Rosssini’s Otello was easily at the same level as the recording and quite possibly better. Her grasp on the melodic line and the ease of her upper register made it totally magical. Looked next to me and Tim’s face said it all, he was very impressed by her and the confident way she approached such a great aria. With near fearlessness she attacked the beautiful neo-classical structure that Rossini provided her with. It reminded me the attitude that Maria Callas would bring to the stage, an air of tenderness but with steely determination. At that stage a grand new diva had arrived in my life! DiDonato made a joke about the drinks not going any warmer at the bar and asked for permission to sing the prayer from Maometto Secondo, as she had Lucy Wakeford playing the harp (the harpist of The Philharmonia Orchestra)! And it was the most wonderful way to ease in the interval.

The second half came and she painted some beautiful pictures out of some frivolous and ever so slightly pedestrian music, in a way only a great artist can. It takes an average artist to do a good job out of a masterpiece, but it takes genius to create ethereal beauty out of competent compositions. And DiDonato achieved that, she inhabited the characters and gave them life and brio. Her two encores were Voi che sapete (she was about to go to The Lyric Opera to sing Cherubino for 11 performances) for which she wore a bow tie as her prop! It was fun and highly accomplished. But the highlight of the night was Tanti affetti from La Donna del Lago, which was my favourite aria from her Colbran cd. Her interpretation was breathtaking, leaving us all wanting more.

The 29th I went again, not being able to resist her charms and she was again very precise, but ever so slightly more tired. It was great fun how she reacted when a patron’s phone went off during the solo harp introduction of Desdemona’s aria. She simply asked if it was Otello calling! The reaction was both quick and terribly embarrassing for the person that left the phone on!
In the end I had a quick chat with her and her fabulous pianist David Zobel and they were both warm and sweet without a hint of arrogance. It was the kind of refreshing performance that I wish it had been witnessed by a younger audience. It would have dispelled widespread preconceptions about stuffy opera recitals. It was fresh, fun and above all great art! That was a night to get an opera neophyte hooked on the art form. But as it’s usually the case on the first night we were the only a handful of people in our early thirties, most of the audience was a sea of grey hair.

PS I was totally shocked to have received three responses from Joyce on my emails before and after the Wigmore performances. And I can’t wait to listen to her performances from Geneva of La Donna del Lago on Radio 3 in July and her Idomeneo from Edinburgh in August. I’ll wish her all the best and of course a full recovery for her much maligned ankle! She is surely a diva for the new era of blogging but with the big guns required to tackle the great canon of 19th century Italian opera and true substance.
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