FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN (1732 – 1809), GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868), FRANCESCO SANTOLIQUIDO (1883 – 1971), ERNESTO DE CURTIS (1875 – 1937), et. al.: Joyce & Tony Live at Wigmore Hall—Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Sir Antonio Pappano, piano [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at Wigmore Hall, London, UK, 6 and 8 September 2014; ERATO 0825646107896; 2 CDs, 94:29; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
Provided that a listener has ears that hear and a heart that feels, any doubt of Joyce DiDonato's status as one of the world's greatest singers is eradicated by the first twenty minutes of Joyce & Tony Live at Wigmore Hall. Singing Franz Joseph Haydn's cantata Arianna a Naxos (Hob.XXVIb:2), DiDonato leaves prima donna affectations and opera-house melodramatics to lesser artists. In the course of those twenty minutes, seconded by Sir Antonio Pappano's intuitively-attuned piano accompaniment, she walks the shores of Naxos, searching the horizon for her beloved Theseus, not artfully portraying Ariadne but truly experiencing every pang of her panic, fear, and sorrow. DiDonato makes 'Teseo mio ben, dove sei, dove sei tu?' much more than an introductory recitative. Her first notes are breathless with exhaustion and disbelief as though Ariadne has struggled through miles of inhospitable terrain in search of her absent lover. She enunciates Italian with near-native inflections, avoiding the exaggeratedly trilled r's and other typical Americanisms, but the real joy of this performance is her affinity for Haydn's music. She never deviates from Classical poise in her singing of the aria 'Dove sei, mio bel tesoro,' but there is nothing dainty about her depiction of Ariadne's despair: her perfectly-judged phrasing places the aria in the company of Brünnhilde's Immolation, Isolde's Liebestod, and Richard Strauss's music for his Ariadne. [It is significant that DiDonato is an accomplished Komponist in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. She has experienced Ariadne's predicament from both sides of the music desk, as it were, and her empathy is unmistakable.] The depth of emotion that the singer conveys with only the first four words of 'Ma, a chi parlo?' is extraordinary. Comparing the economy of means with which DiDonato limns Ariadne's staggering psychological trauma with the histrionic excesses to which many singers resort in this music, thoughts of Abraham Lincoln arise, recalling his following of Edward Everett's two-hour oration at Gettysburg with perhaps the ten most eloquent sentences spoken in America in the Nineteenth Century. When DiDonato intones the cantata's closing aria, 'Ah, che morir vorrei in sì fatal momento,' her voice gleams with a focused purity that elevates Ariadne's utterances from self-pity to world-weariness worthy of Dido and Maria Stuarda. The weight of tragedy emanates from her performance without ever depriving the voice of its natural buoyancy. Depicting Ariadne's dark sentiments with her bright timbre, DiDonato gives a performance that, with its surging passion within the parameters of the appropriate style and absolute surrender to both music and text, conjures memories of Leyla Gencer at her estimable best. This is a reading of Arianna a Naxos in which the singer's artistry fully reveals the wondrous dimensions of Haydn's genius.
DiDonato is one of the world's busiest mezzo-sopranos, her repertory spanning nearly four centuries of musical history, and there are occasional signs in the performances on Joyce & Tony of the effects on the voice of her fast-paced career. Tones at the extreme top of the range can be shrill, tremulous, and slightly blanched in quality, but DiDonato's intonational accuracy remains formidable even in the most challenging passages of bravura writing. The voice remains a fresh, evergreen instrument over which its owner exercises near-perfect control, and DiDonato is an artist who is too shrewd to venture into territory that is foreign to her natural gifts. In this performance, she is partnered with wit and impeccable pianistic technique by Pappano, who takes the rôle of conversationalist rather than that of the eyes-on-his-scores accompanist. He and DiDonato carry on lively banter through music, piano and voice teasing, cajoling, and comforting one another in the course of the recital. It is apparent, though, that Pappano views this recital not as vocal chamber music but as an opportunity for one of Classical Music’s finest voices to shine in the spotlight of ideally-chosen repertory. Produced by Alain Lanceron and Stephen Johns and recorded and edited by Jonathan Allen, ERATO’s discs allow DiDonato to do just that. Balances between voice and piano are managed with intelligence that prevents either instrument from being unduly prominent, but the warmth of the Wigmore Hall acoustics is retained. Audience noise is essentially non-existent, but every moment on these discs pulses with the energy of live performance.
The music of Rossini is DiDonato's natural habitat—or, rather, one of this impressively adaptable artist's natural habitats. Composed in 1821, 'Beltà crudele' is among Rossini's loveliest songs and one of a handful written before the death of Franz Schubert, upon whose work Rossini exerted an often-underestimated influence. DiDonato sings 'Beltà crudele' with the same intensity that she might devote to Schubert's most tuneful inventions. As in Arianna a Naxos, her splendid diction highlights the cleverness of the composer's setting of the text, the open vowels used as springboards for launching Rossini's characteristic vocal lines.. 'La danza,' the eighth song in Rossini's Soirées musicales, dates from 1835. This ebullient tarantella requires the vocal equivalent of an acrobat's dexterity, and DiDonato delivers a scintillating account of the piece without making it seem like a carnival act. Rossinian patter is a mother tongue for DiDonato, and she speaks it in this performance with the proud elegance of a Parisian reciting Baudelaire.
Francesco Santoliquido’s 1908 I canti della sera glisten with an autumnal, restrained melancholy that is not unlike the wistful resignation that courses through Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder. The wide-eyed wonder with which DiDonato phrases ‘Vieni, ti voglio dir quel che non dissi mai’ in the opening song, ‘L'assiolo canta,’ discloses the expanse of her imagination, the slightest hint of capriciousness spicing the intoxicating elixir of her interpretation. Similarly evocative of untold feelings is her articulation of ‘Che pace immensa!’ in ‘Alba di luna sul bosco,’ her voice seeming to take on the weight of eternity without being artificially inflated. Then, she voices ‘Dimmi: è un tramonto o un’alba per l’amor?’ with the innocence of a little girl quizzing her father about some unfathomable aspect of life or nature. There is no artifice in DiDonato’s singing of ‘Tristezza crepuscolare’: this is a reflection on unhappy memories, not a wallow in hopelessness. The quiet solemnity of DiDonato’s voicing of the closing ‘L'incontro’ is profoundly moving. The dulcet utterance of ‘Ma oggi forse m’amate un poco’ contrasts sharply with the shuddering, suddenly uncertain statement of ‘Non sorridete più. Ah! La vostra mano trema.’ Santoliquido’s late-Romantic idiom suits DiDonato as organically as Haydn’s eloquent Classicism and Rossini’s effervescent bel canto, and she sings I canti della sera with beauty and poetry redolent of Claudia Muzio.
Ernesto De Curtis's 'Non ti scordar di me,' composed in 1935 for Beniamino Gigli, finds in DiDonato and Pappano interpreters as attentive to the song's seldom-explored nuances as any who have ever recorded it. Like some of the American repertory in this recital’s second half, ‘Non ti scordar di me’ has suffered in the past eighty years from the effects of over-exposure and indifferent performances, but DiDonato and Pappano approach it as though discovering it anew. The familiar themes here sound unhackneyed, and the expressive impact of the song is as great as when Gigli first sang it.
Operatically-trained singers performing musical theatre standards and folksong settings can be dangerous collisions of over-singing, condescension, and overwrought histrionics. Operatically-trained to be sure, DiDonato is unfairly restricted by being designated an ‘opera singer.’ There is no question that she could convincingly sing chart-topping pop songs were it her prerogative to do so, and she here sings Art songs and gems of the Great White Way with the soulfulness of Joan Baez, the unpretentious textual clarity of Kate Smith, and, above all, the inimitable voice of Joyce DiDonato.
The godfather of American popular song Stephen Foster (1826 – 1864) rarely receives the affectionate treatment that his gifts for melody warrant, especially on disc, but DiDonato’s singing of David Krane’s arrangement of ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ cloaks one of the composer's most familiar melodies in the golden garment of a great voice. Here and in all of the selections on Joyce & Tony's second disc, DiDonato resists the temptation to over-sing in a concerted effort to make the music sound important. This is important music, and she simply sings it according to each number's style and mood, just as she sings music for any of her operatic rôles. The potency of her sensibilities for American song is even more obvious in her performances of five selections by Jerome Kern (1885 – 1945). A more alluring exponent of 'The Siren's Song' from 1917's Leave it to Jane than DiDonato is difficult to imagine, and the mezzo-soprano's gift for storytelling in song is no less delightfully exercised in 'Go Little Boat' from the little-remembered Oh, My Dear! of 1918. Show Boat is perhaps Kern's greatest score, and the performances on this disc of 'Life Upon the Wicked Stage' and 'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man' throb with humor and devotion. For once, it is possible to believe that the singer truly cannot help repeatedly falling in love with that certain someone. Stirring as every selection on Joyce & Tony is, DiDonato's singing of 'All the Things You Are' from the 1939 show Very Warm for May, Kern's last Broadway score, is truly special. Not even Mildred Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald sang the song more lovingly than DiDonato. Trade Pappano's deftly-played piano for lute or theorbo, and this could be a ballad by John Dowland or an aria for Händel's Dejanira.
Havelock Nelson's (1917 – 1996) settings of traditional Irish songs reveal a sensitive spirit with tremendous understanding of the relationships between words and melodies. DiDonato sings his 'Lovely Jimmie' with disarming simplicity, the voice echoing the charm and typical Irish ambiguity of the text. Celius Dougherty (1902 – 1986) is a composer whose work should be far more frequently performed, and DiDonato offers an account of the 1949 song 'Love in the Dictionary' that whets the appetite for more of Dougherty's music, her unaffected demeanor and winsome sense of humor making much of the text, which is a literal recitation of a dictionary definition of the word 'love.' The same enterprising sincerity shapes her voicing of 'Lazy Afternoon' from Jerome Moross's (1913 – 1983) 1955 musical The Golden Apple. Singing mesmerizingly, DiDonato is a magnificent advocate for this material.
William Bolcom's (born 1938) Cabaret Songs should be in the repertories of every singer capably of meeting their musical demands and doing justice to their high-spirited texts. DiDonato steps vivaciously into the world of Cathy Berberian with her performance of 'Amor' from the first volume of Cabaret Songs. She infuses the song with the individuality of a personal anthem, following the paths of Bolcom's melodic lines with the unfettered joy of a singer singing for her own amusement. Mimicking Berberian's versatility, she is equally at ease in 'Food for Thought' from Heitor Villa-Lobos's (1887 – 1959) 1948 'musical adventure' Magdalena. Written for Los Angeles, Magdalena is an unjustly-neglected niche in Villa-Lobos's output, but DiDonato sings ‘Food for Thought' from the operetta's first act with a compelling combination of beguiling, forwardly-placed tone and sovereign stylishness that lends the song an air of cherished familiarity.
Richard Rodgers's (1902 – 1976) 'My Funny Valentine' from the 1937 revue Babes in Arms is a well-traveled number recorded by some of America's most recognizable voices, both as a Broadway hit and as a jazz standard. DiDonato’s performance, neither saccharine nor dry, transforms Wigmore Hall into a smoke-filled lounge where people still speak in complete sentences and gentlemen rise when ladies approach, but the sultry insinuation of her mezza voce suggests that a vein of naughtiness flows beneath the glittering façade. Irving Berlin (1888 – 1989) was a tunesmith with a gift for touching the heartstrings even when setting lyrics that failed to match the quality of his music. 'I Love a Piano' from 1915 is an instance of Berlin morphing lyrics from entertaining to enlightening. DiDonato follows his lead, singing ‘I Love a Piano’ with ease and élan that are unforgettable. Harold Arlen's (1905 – 1986) 'Over the Rainbow' from the iconic score of The Wizard of Oz is as clichéd and over-done a number as there is in the Great American Songbook. Frankly, it is a song that is accepted as a classic without most listeners ever having heard performances that justify that distinction. It is difficult to place a stamp of originality on a performance of ‘Over the Rainbow,’ but DiDonato does so in precisely the manner that she conquers every piece on this program—by simply singing the music impeccably. By solving it, she gets at the heart of the problem with the song that scuttles so many singers’ efforts: genuine Joyce DiDonato is infinitely preferable to fake Judy Garland.
Ultimately, Joyce & Tony Live at Wigmore Hall is a very disappointing disc. It is disappointing that, having been recorded during performances in Wigmore Hall, it could not have gone on far longer than its ninety-five minutes. It is disappointing that DiDonato could not include the complete first volume of Bolcom's Cabaret Songs—imagine her 'Over the Piano' and 'He Tipped the Waiter'—and the three companions to Nelson's arrangement of 'Lovely Jimmie.' Most crucially, it is disappointing that Joyce and Tony could not have planned and executed a recital better than merely spectacular. Oh, for a profusion of such disappointments!