The world of baroque opera is a much maligned milieu with detractors from many directions. Many people can’t bear the da capo arias others find the histrionics uncomfortable. And my own reservation is the lack of vibrato, and very frequently the academic lifelessness of “historically informed performance”. Despite my infinite love for the material, I have sat through some dreadfully dull performances that did not do justice to the glorious music or the ornate vocal style. Of course when one listens to Joyce DiDonato and Il Complesso Barocco’s Drama Queens album it is made obvious that it is a very special project. Not just another vanity vehicle so much loved by record companies but a labour of love and scholarly commitment. Unlike Diva/Divo which left me very cold, this album is a concentrated treatise on fierce signing and characterisation. My only reservation initially was a fear that she may over act and turn the whole concept into a cheap pantomime act.
It was a hugely exciting prospect to see Joyce and her band perform many of the arias from the recording and I can say from the start the live experience overtook the studio performance by miles. Sitting at the front row exactly in front of her was an awesome sight. Being able to observe her technique and composure at such close proximity was much more fascinating than I could have expected. The way she paced herself through the programme and preserved stamina was a great lesson for the many singers in attendance. As was her spot-on jaw placement and strong support and projection. Like many great a singer she made it look effortless and yet enveloped a large auditorium in sinuous, flexible and resonant singing. No grotesque facial contortions or being ridiculously open mouthed. She delivered each aria with a strength and confidence that was unflagging.
Her first great moment was the aria from L’incoronazione di Poppea where she bellowed from despair to vengeance ending in total defeat but every inch a regal presence. But all delivered with insight and spot on deportment. Her Merope aria was a great example of toned down ornamentation and weaving a narrative with a much more paired down interpretation with judicious use of her wonderful chest voice. The da capo section was a masterclass on how to deepen meaning and to ride the beautifully woven melody to different ends each time. The final aria for the first half was the breathless Orlandini aria that opens the album. Pin sharp coloratura with a great legato line made for a fiery conclusion to the first half. I lost count how many ways she found to sing the repeated alma at the conclusion of every repeat, adding a different colour and nuance every time, seriously antagonising the bright scarlet couture creation by Vivienne Westwood that she was wearing in concert and of course in the album sleeve. The concept of the disc incarnated and made of cloth and thread.
The second half was even more mouth-watering and showing a great artist at the top of their game without much in the way of deference or vanity. The opening Hasse aria was a fast and furious intro to match the dress than now had the addition of a capacious underskirt and sleeves, she had metamorphosed into an 18th century aristocrat. A period that Westwood is well attuned to and has used as inspiration for many of her most famous creations. A great example being the Watteau dress in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The absolute highlight of the evening was her rendition of Piangerò which was short of miraculous. Having the privilege of sitting exactly in front of her gave us such a wonderful vantage point to see her get into Cleopatra. Growing in intensity and dramatic delivery as the aria continues. The da capo section was one of the most astonishing singing I have ever experienced live. The depth of feeling perfectly paired with thoughtful engagement with the text and beautiful ornamentation were stunning. The development of mood and expression of the character’s inner thinking is what baroque is all about and this performance was a masterful embodiment.
The more withdrawn aria from Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide starting on a velvety sotto voce evocation of her mother accompanied with misty eyes was very moving. But ever the professional she never allowed the feelings to overwhelm her, instead they enriched the mood of the singing without compromising the sound or over-sentimentalising. Closing the concert with the triumphant aria from Alessandro was a great move to finish off on a ebullient mood.
The orchestral interludes were of an equal standing, the orchestra offering some spirited playing and Dmitri Sinkovsky’s bouncy showman personality was the perfect foil for DiDonato’s warm stage presence. For once we couldn’t accuse the singer of over-gesticulating, Sinkovsky filled that gap with his extravagant bowing (can imagine it could eclipse a lot of artists) here it added effervescence. Their Vivaldi concerto was dangerous and showy, exactly what is missing too frequently from opera recitals. Il Complesso Barocco even matched our diva’s outfit with their own red socks…a little touch that gave us all a bit of a giggle.
Three encores followed (Fredegunda : Lasciami Piangere + Berenice : Col Versar, Barbaro, Il Sangue + Armida : Vedi, Se T’amo… Odio, Furor, Dispetto) and responding to my interval tweet of my view of the stage she surprisingly asked who was the guy from the middle of the front row that was tweeting. I have to admit to been very surprised but totally charmed by getting a shout out by the lady herself. Next time we will see her in London she will show up submerged in a water filled museum case on the set of La Donna del Lago at the Royal Opera House and I surely can not wait.