04 September 2014

CD REVIEW: STELLA DI NAPOLI (Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; ERATO 08256 463656 2 3)


VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835), MICHELE CARAFA (1787 – 1872), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), SAVERIO MERCADANTE (1795 – 1870), GIOVANNI PACINI (1796 – 1867), GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868), and CARLO VALENTINI (1790 – 1853): Stella di Napoli – Arias from Adelson e Salvini (Bellini), I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (Bellini), Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth (Donizetti), Maria Stuarda (Donizetti), Le nozze di Lammermoor (Carafa), Saffo (Pacini), Il sonnambulo (Valentini), Stella di Napoli (Pacini), La vestale (Mercadante), and Zelmira (Rossini)—Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Héloïse Mas, mezzo-soprano; Rémy Mathieu, tenor; Nabil Suliman, baritone; Jean-Michel Bertelli, clarinet; Morgane Fauchois-Prado, glockenspiel; Orchestre et Chœur de l’Opéra de Lyon; Riccardo Minasi, conductor [Recorded at Opéra de Lyon, France, 17 – 24 October 2013; ERATO 08256 463656 2 3; 1CD, 72:15; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Joyce DiDonato is a great singer. Any question about this truth is answered within seconds of the start of the first track on this disc. More than any of her other recordings to date, however, Stella di Napoli offers devotees and doubters alike a litany of reasons why she is a great singer. For one thing, there is her insatiable curiosity, a longing for the thrill of discovery that leads her into cobwebbed corners of archives and libraries in search not just of neglected music but of the stories of the people who composed and performed it, as well. In the context of this recording, that drive leads her along the cosmopolitan, slightly savage streets of Naples, where in the era of Rossini and Donizetti the Teatro di San Carlo was the gilded barrel in which the intoxicating elixir of bel canto was fortified. Yes, Joyce DiDonato is a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice, but the performances on this disc strip away the glossy brilliance of the sleek cover art and fashion-plate portraits to reveal the undulating life force of an honest, hardworking musician whose moonbeam timbre and phenomenal technique are but two aspects of her artistic dynamism. Expectedly, there is some spectacularly virtuosic singing in this recital: what makes this disc genuinely explosive, though, is the singer’s inescapable charisma. Children are taught to avoid looking at the sun, but there is no turning away from the combustible singing on this disc, which refuses to relinquish its grasp on the senses until the final note has sounded. Collectively, these meticulously-crafted arias from the first decades of the Nineteenth Century are the gleaming star of Naples, and here as never before Joyce DiDonato is an operatic supernova.

A marvel of nature that defies conventional categorization, Ms. DiDonato’s voice is poised—as history suggests that Isabella Colbran’s and Maria Malibran’s were—between mezzo-soprano and soprano. In her tangy lower register she can purr like a wily seductress or proclaim like a Roman emperor, and she can place tones at the top of her range with the brightness and security of a gifted lyric soprano. In her singing of Sister Helen Prejean in Virgin’s recording of the Houston Grand Opera production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, there are passages in which she sounds uncannily like the young Leontyne Price, in fact. Ms. DiDonato’s winsome versatility and cognizance of proper tonal projection have enabled her in recent seasons to augment her repertoire of Baroque and bel canto rôles with parts like Richard Strauss’s Komponist and Octavian. For less-shrewd singers, similar expansions of repertory often lead to compromising of vocal flexibility. The facility and brio of Ms. DiDonato’s bravura singing on Stella di Napoli exclaim that no such jeopardy has befallen her voice. Whether in long-sustained cantabile passages or volleys of coloratura, she is supported with panache by conductor Riccardo Minassi and the forces of l’Opéra de Lyon. Experienced in historically-informed performances of Baroque music, Maestro Minassi approaches the selections on Stella di Napoli with unique sensibilities. Whether in the familiar territory of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti or the uncharted waters of Carafa and Valentini, Maestro Minassi is attentive to the demands of the music and to the subtleties of Ms. DiDonato’s interpretations. The conductor’s investment in studying and leading performances of Händel’s operas pays handsome dividends in his pacing of the music on Stella di Napoli. From the perspective of the consistency of musical achievement among all personnel involved with this recording, his relationship with the Opéra de Lyon choristers and musicians is obviously an advantageous one. The choristers sing with the immediacy of a staged performance, not a studio recording, taking their cue from Ms. DiDonato’s indefatigable commitment and displaying good Italian diction. In the lines for Marta in Pacini’s Stella di Napoli, Sofia in Valentini’s Il sonnambulo, and Climene in Pacini’s Saffo, mezzo-soprano Héloïse Mas is a worthy seconda donna, and tenor Rémi Mathieu and baritone Nabil Suliman sing robustly in their assignments in Saffo and Rossini’s Zelmira. The musicians of the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon are a formidably-talented lot. They follow Maestro Minassi’s beat and echo Ms. DiDonato’s phrasing vivaciously, and the solo opportunities—Jean-Michel Bertelli’s soulful clarinet obbligato in the aria from Carafa’s Le nozze di Lammermoor, the boisterous glockenspiel playing of Morgane Fauchois-Prado in Donizetti’s Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, and the appealing efforts of the unjustly-unidentified harpist—are seized with relish. Working with a team of musicians as gifted and attentive as these does not make a singer a Joyce DiDonato, but it would make many singers’ recording experiences far more enjoyable for both the artists and their listeners.

Opening this recital with the title character’s polacca cabaletta ‘Ove t’aggiri, o barbaro’ from Giovanni Pacini’s 1845 Stella di Napoli was a perfect choice. Ms. DiDonato immediately establishes the energetic dramatic atmosphere that permeates the disc. The accuracy and brilliance of her pinpoint staccati are thrilling, and Pacini’s music, though not of the quality of his Carlo di Borgogna (a flop at its 1835 première), Maria, regina d’Inghilterra, and Medea, makes sufficient demands on Ms. DiDonato’s technique to spur curiosity about the balance of this forgotten score. Saffo, on the other hand, may well be Pacini’s finest opera, and ‘Teco dall’are pronube vengo al paterno tetto’ and ‘L’ama ognor qual io l’amai’ from the final scene are spirited and original. Ms. DiDonato is an appropriately golden-tongued poetess, and she maintains a glowing lyricism even when under greatest vocal stress. Beginning and ending the disc with music by Pacini is sensible from a stylistic point of view, but the scrutiny that Ms. DiDonato’s performances apply to the music affirms the composer’s worthiness to occupy these places of prominence in this examination of lyrical stars of Naples.

Two of the most intriguing selections on Stella di Napoli are those that present studies of familiar themes by unfamiliar composers. The heroine of Michele Carafa’s Le nozze di Lammermoor is the same unfortunate bride of Lammermoor—historically, née Janet Dalrymple—who inspired Donizetti’s setting of Sir Walter Scott’s famous novel. Donizetti’s Lucia is the more popular lass, but the aria ‘Oh, di sorte crudel’ suggests that Carafa’s Highlands protagonist is more harmonically adventurous. Ms. DiDonato ably negotiates the intricacies of the music, her certainty of intonation unveiling the inventiveness of the composer’s work. Carlo Valentini’s Il sonnambulo does not inhabit the same world as Bellini’s La sonnambula, but there are similarities between the two operas that extend beyond Felice Romani’s authorship of the libretti of both works. Romani’s Il sonnambulo was itself a well-traveled text, having also been set by Carafa, Persiani, and Luigi Ricci. Adele’s ‘Se il mar sommesso mormora’ from Valentini’s setting is an evocative piece, and Ms. DiDonato sings it with elegance and vision. The aural imagery depicting the workings of nature makes the success of this aria especially reliant upon the quality of the orchestral playing, and it succeeds gloriously in this performance.

Despite the continuing obscurity of a number of his finest scores, Saverio Mercadante was one of the leading innovators of the first half of the Nineteenth Century. His 1840 La vestale, sadly still in the shadow of Spontini’s opera based upon the same source, is one of the quiet masterpieces of Italian Romanticism. Giunia’s aria ‘Se fino al cielo ascendere’ is a marvel of concerted utterance to which Ms. DiDonato devotes precisely the condensed potency that the music requires. She is one of the few singers in the world today who can compellingly portray a vestal virgin without being affected or cloying, and the infusion of vocal purity that she injects into Mercadante’s lines is vocally and dramatically efficacious.

The title rôle in Zelmira is one of the parts that Gioachino Rossini created for his future consort, Isabella Colbran. Judging from contemporary accounts of Colbran’s artistry, Ms. DiDonato is as apposite a modern successor to the legendary singer’s legacy as recent years have heard. Rossini presumably knew Colbran’s voice like his own and crafted music that exploited its every capability. Still, the aria ‘Riedi al soglio’ might have been composed for Ms. DiDonato. Rossini’s roulades and ornaments exploit many of her trademark pyrotechnical feats, and she sings with a prowess unusual even in this age of great Rossini singing. She ignites coloratura passages like an eruption of Vesuvio, and her trills are among the best in the business.

No Italian composer active in Naples or elsewhere in the Nineteenth Century constructed melodies with greater fluency than Vincenzo Bellini. La sonnambula, Norma, and I puritani remain in circulation on the world’s great stages, but Bellini’s early Adelson e Salvini has been performed only a handful of times in the past half-century. Nelly’s aria ‘Dopo l’oscuro nembo’ is a piece worthy of Bellini’s more famous prime donne, and Ms. DiDonato sings it with the eloquence and poise that a great Norma devotes to ‘Casta diva.’ Bellini’s long-sustained melodic lines are well-suited to Ms. DiDonato’s natural suppleness of phrasing. Thankfully, I Capuleti ed i Montecchi clings to a foothold in the international repertory, and Ms. DiDonato’s account of Romeo’s ‘Deh! tu, bell’anima’ evinces the charm that empowers the opera’s resilience. If Ms. DiDonato is a logical inheritor of the legacy of Isabella Colbran, she is an equally intuitive descendant of Giuditta Grisi, who created both Bellini’s Romeo and Estella in Pacini’s Carlo di Borgogna. In Ms. DiDonato’s singing of ‘Deh! tu, bell’anima,’ Romeo’s sorrow is sent soaring into the heavens, her expert diction illuminating the dolorous probity of Romani’s text.

A number of Gaetano Donizetti’s operas were premièred in Naples, including Lucia di Lammermoor, Roberto Devereux, and Caterina Cornaro. His 1829 Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, the earliest of the composer’s Tudor adventures, shows his indebtedness to Rossini more obviously than his later scores, and the combination of Rossinian fiorature with Donizetti’s distinctive dramatic thrust engenders an ideal musical playing field for Ms. DiDonato. Amelia’s aria ‘Par che mi dica ancora’ was first sung by soprano Luigia Boccabadati, a singer much appreciated by both Donizetti and Meyerbeer, but the tessitura of the music poses no problems for Ms. DiDonato. Indeed, she seems to grow more comfortable as the vocal lines ascend, and her connection with Amelia’s suffering is palpable. So renowned is Ms. DiDonato’s way with Donizetti that the Metropolitan Opera staged the company’s first production of the composer’s Maria Stuarda as a vehicle for her assumption of the title rôle. Already acclaimed for her portrayal of Elisabetta in the same opera, the competing fire and finesse with which she took up Mary’s crown were epic. Her singing of Maria’s despondent prayer from Act Three, ‘Deh! Tu di un’amile preghiera,’ has the regal composure befitting a daughter of Marie de Guise, but the real joy of this performance is the effortless clarity of Ms. DiDonato’s fashioning of the bel canto line. This is the sort of singing that seems to suspend time, and Ms. DiDonato is one of the few of today’s singers who can achieve this time and time again.

As a testament to the vocal health of one of the world’s best singers, Stella di Napoli is one of the most welcome releases of 2014. In these ten slices of Nineteenth-Century Neapolitan operatic life, the listener is guided through the development of bel canto, from the florid domain of Rossini to the dramatic milieux of Donizetti and Mercadante. In performances less fervent than those on this disc, the music of Carafa, Pacini, Valentini, and even the ingenious Mercadante might seem pale alongside the bold inspirations of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, but this recital reminds the open-minded observer that any music can captivate in the hands of a great singer. Joyce DiDonato makes no apologies for any of the arias on Stella di Napoli: she just sings them, and nothing further is required.

QUEEN OF BEL CANTO: Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title rôle of Gaetano Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA at the Metropolitan Opera, 2012 [Photo by Ken Howard, © The Metropolitan Opera]Stella di Scozia: Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title rôle of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the Metropolitan Opera in December 2012 [Photo by Ken Howard, © The Metropolitan Opera]