By Leslie Kandell
NEW YORK — The varied ways in which mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato makes use of her talent probably played into the decision to name her a Carnegie Hall Perspectives artist. Each of the two selected — the other this year is violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter — designs and performs four concerts that display aspects of their musical quests. DiDonato’s Nov. 4 mainstage recital, with the attentive, self-effacing French pianist David Zobel, displayed virtuosity at early Italian opera, interest in French chanson, and loyalty to neglected English composers.
Her light, flexible voice and soprano quality help her add bel canto girls’ roles to the mezzo trouser repertory. In 2007, she was a darling Rosina in the Metropolitan Opera’s Barber of Seville, and last month she drew raves in the title role of Handel’s rarely heard Alcina with the English Concert and Harry Bicket. In addition to successes in the United States and Europe, she became the first classical singer to perform at the Grammys, when she won in 2012 for “Diva, Divo,” her recording on EMI/Virgin Classics. (She chose Rossini’s “Non più mesta,” a career staple.)
Besides technical virtuosity she excels at cute, smart, and tart, which may have a time limit: the Nov. 22 “Live from the Met” telecast features Isabel Leonard in Barber, with DiDonato as enthusiastic host.
So she is venturing into other repertory. Songs and arias on her Perspectives program, “A Journey Through Venice,” were either about that watery city or composed there, with songs by Vivaldi, a native, and Fauré, Rossini, Michael Head, and Reynaldo Hahn, visitors with fond memories. The music and the performance had peaks and valleys.
Two limpid castrato arias from Vivaldi’s opera Ercole su’l Termodonte (“Hercules in Thermodon”), with rippling piano interludes and no vocal leaps, served as a warmup in the way that some programs start with “Se tu m’ami” to get the voice going.
Then DiDonato picked up a microphone, cabaret style, and told the audience how thrilled she was to be in Carnegie Hall and how great New York City is. It was unnecessary to break the mood in that manner: she’s not in Kansas any more. But the mike was emblematic of the growing presence of electronic media. In addition to advances on DiDonato’s Facebook and Twitter sites, this was the first Carnegie Hall concert to be live-streamed, free, for 90 days, on medici.tv. (Try it now: listening to music trumps reading about it any time.) And YouTube is where to see the Kansan pour her heart into “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the opening of the final world series game.
Vocally, it was not far from “Ercole” to Fauré’s Cinq Mélodies de Venise, Op. 58, which has the famous “Mandoline,” “C’est l’extase,” and three other Verlaine settings. Fauré, who disliked theatrical effects, was neither an opera nor concerto composer. His luminous, lyrical melodies slide in a sea of harmonic color, rocking gently in his singular, expanded use of three-quarter time. DiDonato showed great control in pianissimos but occasional crescendo notes stuck out of the phrase.
Her Italian choices, particularly Rossini’s “La regata veneziana” set and concluding songs from a group by Reynaldo Hahn, had the edge and energy of her recent virtuosic triumph in Handel’s Alcina. She was best at songs with acting opportunities, and strongest at Italian, as if she came from that culture. In Hahn’s “Che pecà” (What a shame), a fat, gassy Falstaff type sits by a canal, griping. DiDonato plunged fearlessly into a ribald characterization.
Head, a favorite of DiDonato’s, composed “Three Songs of Venice” for Dame Janet Baker in 1974. Totally tonal, pleasant, and in the fach, they are not distinguished by demands made on listeners, nor any gifts they offer. Mentally, the listener remains seated. This Venice was a gray, off-season city, after tourists had left. Even the words and piano playing were foggy, but that was unintentional.
At intermission (watching the streamed concert will show you), DiDonato changed gowns, shoes, and jewelry. Whoever said the new sparkling burgundy one looked like plastic wrap should be spanked.
The first encore, Rossini’s “Canzonetta spagnuola,” was in the mode of Carmen’s “Seguidilla” but with florid coloratura, perfectly negotiated. The other, “Non ti scordar di me” by Ernesto De Curtis, calls to mind “Come Back to Sorrento.” Would anyone risk an encore from The Gondoliers?
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, MusicalAmerica.com, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.