Given that this is me reviewing a Joyce DiDonato recital, it will not come as a surprise that the general drift of this is going to be, roughly speaking, THIS IS THE BEST THING I HAVE HEARD IN MONTHS.
But the important bits are in the details. First of all, the baroque chamber orchestra that accompanied her was Il complesso barocco directed not by Alan Curtis but by violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky, who is not only an energetic conductor but a very fine violinist – Vivaldi’s violin concerto in D minor (RV 242) was not, as it could have been, just an interlude partway through the first half during which we waited for DiDonato to come back. It was one of the high points in and of itself. What I noticed most was the contrast between both the outer movements and the slow one and between the two outer movements themselves – the first allegro was forceful and sharp and energetic, but the last one was wild. It was great. Both in this piece and elsewhere the orchestra is clearly having a hell of a time, and Sinkovsky’s performance (on a baroque violin) was such that I’m definitely keeping an eye out for this guy, either live or on CD.
But of course the reason that we’re all in the room is the lady with the red dress and the big voice. The little scrawly notes I wrote on my program started out detailed, but by the end of the first half they degenerated into a series of little stars and “wow!”s and underlined smiley-faces. The first selection, from Antonio Cesti’s Orontea, Queen of Egypt, had a bit of a warming up feel early on, but the operation was off and running by the time we got to the end of it. The second piece on the program was Ottavia’s “disprezzata regina” from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, which, well, is not my favorite baroque opera ever, but complaining about the programming here is the last thing I intend to do, because I really did enjoy this. The series of dramatic moves in the aria were all beautifully articulated, and you get a great glimpse of the way DiDonato’s voice can sound alternately velvety, or clear and fragile, or however it needs to sound – and she makes very effective use of that baroque ornament the name of which I can never remember, but it’s like a little machine-gun trill on one note; whatever it’s called, the way it’s done here evoked a sob, which was perfectly in keeping with the text (I remember hearing it on the word “martiri.”)
The Giacomelli selection, “Sposa son disprezzata,” was where things really got going for me – the contrast between this and the Monteverdi was very effective. This piece felt much fuller and bigger, and sort of rolls forward: it’s exciting music and exciting singing. DiDonato has a way with these da capo arias that kills me every time. The transition from the B section always has this wonderful tension, which then releases at just the right moment and moves forward into the repeat of the A section. This happened in the Giacomelli, and in the other similarly-constructed arias, Hasse’s “morte, col fiero aspetto” Handel’s “piangero la sorte mia” and Giovanni Porta’s “madre diletta.”
But it’s more than just beautifully constructed and phrased transitions – this was, for example, among the most riveting performances of “piangerò la sorte mia” that I’ve ever heard – by the B section you’re transfixed, and that repeat has that classic DiDonato quality of beautifully executed ornamentation that has expressive force and depth as well: the emotions and the complexity of the music and its performance are one and the same. There is nothing extraneous about those ornaments – I believe there was one extra velvety low note that I’m not used to hearing (I wasn’t following along in the score, of course, but I recall thinking this) that made me think that note should really be in there all the time in this aria. The same goes for Porta’s “madre diletta,” from Ifigenia, Princess of Mycenae where even if you can understand the words, the thrill of the thing is just to hear the expression in every little turn and move of the singing. This is exhausting stuff, in the best way – one of those concerts where during the intermission and afterward one just sort of sits there silently buzzing all over.
There was some more light-hearted material mixed into the program as well. DiDonato was on the edge of dancing and had the orchestra and some of the audience moving to the rhythm as well in the excerpt from Orlandini’s Berenice, “da torbida procella,” which is one of those “boat on the stormy sea” numbers which is so much fun that it doesn’t even matter what it’s about. And in both the last selection, a Handel aria, and at several points in the four (I think four?) encores, we got to hear DiDonato’s voice fill the whole hall. It’s such an amazing feeling when this happens: you hear it, and then you realize that you’re not just hearing it, you’re physically feeling it, and for an instant there is nothing in that hall but her voice.
And that red dress (particularly the second version, with the panniers) was awesome.