Joyce DiDonato Devises Inventive Recital Variation

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato's project 'In War and Peace,' a lavish packaging of baroque opera arias with dance, costumes, makeup, and stage effects, opened its seven-city North American tour in Vancouver. (Photos by Brooke Shaden)
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s project ‘In War and Peace,’ a lavish packaging of Baroque opera arias with dance, costumes, makeup, and stage effects, opened its seven-city North American tour in Vancouver. (Photos by Brooke Shaden)
By David Gordon Duke

VANCOUVER — Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato brought her project In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music to the Orpheum Theatre on Nov. 30, the first of seven performances in North America.

Legions of enthusiastic fans of one of the world’s reigning divas would no doubt have settled for virtually any form of concert or recital. This, however, is a highconcept multi-media endeavor designed by stage director Ralf Pleger, enriching a selection of Baroque arias with movement as well as lighting effects and animated projections conceived by Henning Blum and Yousef Iskandar, respectively. It’s a lavishly extravagant proposition: the 21-piece Il Pomo d’Oro baroque orchestra led by Maxim Emelyanychev is on stage; there are various add-ons, including a pre-concert discussion panel; DiDonato’s gowns are by the celebrated fashion icon Vivienne Westwood.

DiDonato's gowns were designed by Vivienne Westwood.
DiDonato’s gowns were designed by Vivienne Westwood.

If considering big ethical and political ideas through music isn’t new, In War & Peace employs various forms of contemporary media in the service of bringing new audiences to the fold, a populist impulse in the best sense. Does it really add up to that much more than a conventional program of opera arias? Yes. The evening aims at a fairly broad audience, not just the built-in niche that wants to hear a period-instrument orchestra and a grand diva in Baroque repertoire. Lighting, projections, and surtitles establish moods and resonances that might easily be lost on those unfamiliar with early opera. And the show will give many outside big opera centers an opportunity to sample DiDonato’s stage work and manifest theatrical skills.

The evening begins with DiDonato standing imperially motionless at the back of the stage as the audience enters; a single bare-chested male dancer kneels near the front of the stage. The members of the orchestra silently file onto a dimly lit stage, made all the more obscure by lashings of fog. The philosophical trajectory of the evening is akin to an extended composition. Initial “war” arias by Handel and Leonardo Leo enable a hyper-dramatic opening salvo.

A short orchestral interlude follows — the Sinfonia from Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s splendid Rappresentatione di anima e di corpo (1600) — a pragmatic opportunity to admit latecomers and for the musicians to quickly re-tune. The youthful members of the orchestra play with confidence and finesse; if their onstage working conditions must occasionally be trying, the results are invariably fine, and there is no hint that they are uncomfortable being drawn into the theatrical mise en scène. Indeed, just the opposite: later in the evening one of the ensemble’s stellar recorder players is drawn to center stage by dancer-choreographer Manuel Palazzo to duet with DiDonato in “Augelletti, che cantate” from Handel’s Rinaldo (1711).

Makeup artist Bethany Alders designed DiDonato's war paint.
Makeup artist Bethany Alders designed DiDonato’s war paint.

A second segment is launched by a Purcell chaconne from The Indian Queen (1695) followed by one of the best-known selections on the program: the recitative and lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689). The first half of the program is rounded out by two further Handel arias: “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” from Agrippina (1709) and “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo, with an instrumental version of Gesualdo’s “Tristis est anima mea” (1611) sandwiched in between.

DiDonato’s voice is inimitable, with a slightly smoky, rich mezzo sound at its core. She has the ability to produce clarion, clear projection at the top end of her range and a menacing extra darkness to her low notes. Add in agility and a wide range of color, and one confronts a vocal profile as complex as it is unique. Her work was consistently impressive, but perhaps the most plangent moment in the first half of the program was the final repeated “Remember me!” at the end of Dido’s lament: the voice as ghost of Purcell’s tragic queen, oddly thin and unbeautiful, all the more wonderful for its strangeness. Her stage presence is built from out-sized gestures and postures, commanding and tragic in “War,” happy and even goofily flirtatious in “Peace.”

DiDonato in 'Peace,' with fog.
DiDonato in ‘Peace,’ with fog.

“Peace” as the subject of the evening’s second part is an obvious strategy, but the juxtaposition is not labored. A pastoral calm is established with an aria from The Indian Queen and a complementary lyric from Handel’s Susanna (1749). In an evening full of effects, the combination of fog machines, a slowly materializing arch of light, and the Hollywood Baroque of the Orpheum created a particularly potent stage picture, setting up that great virtuoso showpiece, “Da tempeste il legno infranto” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare (1724).

The evening’s only non-Baroque work, Pärt’s Da pacem Domine, provided a bit of pensive breathing space. “Augelletti, che cantate” and Niccolò Jommelli’s extravagant “Par che di giubilo” from Attilio Regolo (1753) rounded out the official program before DiDonato took up a microphone to address the audience directly about the concepts behind the musical journey she had just led us on and to entreat us to enshrine the concept of harmony in our own lives. Her stage personality was as endearing as her performance — earnest with just a touch of wry self-awareness to avoid any suspicion of pretentiousness. A trio of encores formed the actual conclusion of the evening, ending with quiet assurance and fragile hope in Richard Strauss’ 1894 “Morgen!”

There are five more performances of In War & Peace, all in the U.S. and ending at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 15. Click here for details. For a complete list of DiDonato’s U.S. and European engagements, go here.

David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College and teaches at the University of British Columbia. 

DiDonato’s concert in Vancouver was her only Canadian performance. She was interviewed on the English national network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: