One of my fondest opera memories is of being at the Houston Grand Opera a little over two years ago to hear Joyce DiDonato in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. It’s one of those operas that I seek out more as a chance to hear specific performers than for the opera itself. In Houston, I remember being simply mesmerized listening to the way her voice could sail through all the little twists and turns of ornamentation in a way that was both technically a thrill to listen to and dramatically compelling. There were several moments where she made the vocal line stop, hang in the air, and then in the same breath moved it on in a different direction – it was stunning. This recording reminded me of that experience, and not just because there is a selection from Maria Stuarda on it (it’s the prayer scene from the finale).
If I go into too much detail I will write things that I have written many times before. DiDonato has personality enough and to spare, and she shines in this sort of music. I particularly liked the brief unaccompanied section toward the end of Carafa’s “Oh, di sorta crudel,” and similar moments (e.g. the long upward run in “Ove t’aggiri, o barbaro”), where one ends up just sitting there smiling because it’s such a pleasure to hear the control she has over her voice and all the fantastic things she can do with it.
There are different ways of getting lost in a performance – being sucked into the subtlety of a characterization, or into the sheer sound of someone’s voice, to name two. With this, the thrill is less in details of character or minute shifts of color than in the virtuosity of the execution and the force of personality behind it. DiDonato’s performances of Mozart and Handel reveal that she’s a thoughtful and subtle actor too, but the operatic excerpts here are not ones that give the same scope for interpretation as say, Don Giovanni. This is just straight up fun. It put me in mind of a book I read a year or two ago about Parisian audiences’ changing musical tastes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of the key shifts in taste (the author argued) was wrought by Rossini: the claim was that in Rossini’s music, the scope for insane virtuosity and ornamentation sometimes resulted in tour-de-force musical flights that were detached from the drama. This might seem like a problem, but in fact it gave French audiences a chance to appreciate music at a level of abstraction that they hadn’t before, even if Rossini’s music itself is not considered abstractly absorbing in the same way as that of, say, Mozart. Previous to this, French audiences had wanted music to be concretely connected with drama – either “painting” details like birds and storms, or representing emotions like “valor” or “love” or “regret” in a fairly obvious way. Thus, Rossini paved the way for their later appreciation of Haydn and Beethoven. Whether you buy the claim or not, listening to DiDonato sing this early 19th century Italian material certainly makes it seem plausible. I find myself not really caring what it’s “about” and getting lost simply in the singing itself. One can hear and appreciate phrasing and shape without worrying about the content of the words, which is kind of interesting.
This is not to say that the music itself lacks charm. The sixth track, for example, “Par che me dica ancora,” involves a glockenspiel, which tinkles and skips along beside the vocal part – it’s somewhere between delightful and inane, and it works. It’s probably worth mentioning that this aria is from Donizetti’s improbably named Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, which as you might suspect is an Italian opera set in England. The aria belongs to a character named Amelia, which might make one stop and wonder – in what historical circumstances was there an Elizabeth and an Amelia in the sort of personal conjunction that produces opera plots hundreds of years later? Amelia is singing about an unfaithful husband, which is the first clue. Also, the name Amelia was not superlatively common in sixteenth-century England – one might guess that this was a switch out for an English name that doesn’t get much play in Italian. At this point, I had my “oho, I know what THIS one is about” moment and it turns out that I was right. A girl does not spend most of eighth grade reading soft-core novels about Tudors for nothing.