DiDonato Album ‘Eden’ A Rewarding Return To ‘Essence Of Our Being’ 

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Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato teams with the Italian ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro on her new CD, ‘Eden.’ (Photo by Sergi Jasanada)

Eden. Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano. Il Pomo d’Oro (Maxim Emelyanychev, director). Erato 9029646515.

DIGITAL REVIEW — “There is a torn map in my clenched fist. On it is marked where I have been and where I want to go. But this moment is not on any map.” This lyric by Gene Sheer, from a new work by Rachel Portman written for Joyce DiDonato, poses the dilemma expressed in the mezzo-soprano’s new album, Eden. More than a CD, the Eden project is the culmination of a period of introspection during the pandemic shutdown, drawing inspiration from nature to forge a way to a better world.

DiDonato’s prolific discography dates back 25 years, beginning with contemporary projects with Houston Grand Opera. As a young artist there, she first worked with composers like Michael Daugherty, Tod Machover, and especially Jake Heggie, who has remained a steady presence throughout her career. Her dozens of recordings include Baroque compilations, recitals combining arias and both art and popular songs, Berlioz, and the Rossini and Handel operas that became her theatrical bread and butter. In 2016, she released In War and Peace, which documents her first staged recital project with the superb baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, directed by Maxim Emelyanychev, who are also her musical collaborators on this latest undertaking. 

Says DiDonato, “Eden is an invitation to return to our roots and to explore whether or not we are connecting as profoundly as we can to the pure essence of our being, to create a new Eden from within and plant seeds of hope for the future.” That’s no mere metaphor: At concerts along the tour, audience members receive a native seed to plant, chosen with the aid of local conservation and botanical garden partners. Partnering with International Teaching Artists Collaborative, a teaching artist in each tour city conducts workshops with a youth choir, culminating in their participation in the concert with DiDonato and Il Pomo d’Oro. DiDonato’s ambitious goals over the next four years include engaging young people actively in the concert experience, reinforcing a message of climate activism, and creating a sense of individual responsibility to contribute to one’s community.

But for the listener who will experience only the audio recording, how is the music? Eden is a creative mix of repertoire from over four centuries, grouped not by date but by moods that span confusion, fear, anger, sorrow, introspection, cautious optimism, determination, and a particular Joyce-like gratitude. It asks more of listeners than many CDs and rewards them by leading them on a journey.

The opening from Ives’ The Unanswered Question, with DiDonato wordlessly crooning the solo trumpet part, is initially a bit strange, but it does cast a spell. A newly commissioned work by Rachel Portman, The First Morning of the World, with text by Gene Sheer, stays in the same sound world; the text sets up the tension between the timeless certainties of the natural world and the question of how the singer became separated from nature. Lushly orchestrated crescendos occasionally threaten to overwhelm DiDonato’s lower register, but balances mostly work. Portman plays with all the colors of the voice, and Emelyanchev’s ensemble moves easily out of its Baroque comfort zone. Mahler’s dreamy Rückert-Lied “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!” (I breathed a gentle fragrance) pulls back from the anxiety given voice by Portman, settling on a wonder-filled mood to end the set.

The music shifts to the early Italian Baroque with a sprightly strophic song by Biago Marini about paradoxes of nature: sunshine at night, a rose blooming through the snow. They’re metaphors for the power of love; the simple tune is upbeat, accompanied by baroque guitar and enlivened by solo ritornellos, but the text reveals a singer distraught with emotion. The full band carries us into the Garden of Eden via a grand recitative and aria from Adamo ed Eva by the 18th-century Czech composer Josef Mysliveček, with a cheerfully vengeful Creator-God promising to deliver climate disaster. The classical grandeur sounds more formulaic than inspired by genius, but DiDonato certainly delivers the fireworks.

Back in the 20th century, Aaron Copland’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s “Nature, the Gentlest Mother” provides a moment of repose. But we soon bounce back to 17th-century Italy with Giovanni Valentini’s enigmatic “Sonata enharmonica,” a disconcerting instrumental dialogue between two string sections playing in alternation in different, unrelated keys, like polite discourse between two parties who will never agree. A mournful air from Cavalli’s La Calisto is a gently rocking lament for the flame-scorched earth, ending with an unexpectedly vehement cry of “no more!”

Maxim Emelyanychev is chief conductor of Il Pomo d’Oro.

Fury and confusion find voice with Gluck, first in a fiery dance from Orfeo ed Euridice, which showcases Il Pomo d’Oro’s breathtaking virtuosity, then with a mad scene from his opera Ezio, where a betrayed woman begs for a thunderbolt to put her out of her misery. While the aria’s context doesn’t really reflect the album’s theme, musically it expresses the frustration of this chaotic moment in history.

Calm is restored with Handel in Theodora’s exquisite “As with rosy steps the morn” (DiDonato spent the fall singing and touring the title role in Handel’s eponymous oratorio, including an acclaimed staging at Covent Garden). With Mahler’s sublime “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” the singer retreats from the world’s strife, and ending with Wagner’s “Schmerzen” (Wesendonck Lieder), she paradoxically expresses gratitude for the privilege of being alive to experience pain. A bonus track — read encore — returns to nature and serenity with a fragment of Handel’s beloved ode to a tree, “Ombra mai fu.”

Emelyanychev and his forces shape the Baroque selections with responsive energy, and with the addition of extra personnel are utterly persuasive in the later repertoire. The controlled recording environment allows the bel canto mezzo to essay Wagner and Mahler with success.

Though on paper the musical program appears motley, listening to the 69-minute recording is a coherent, soothing, and uplifting experience, especially in the wake of the chaos that exploded on the eve of its February 25 release date. The superbly performed Baroque selections offer contrast to the later, calmer works. The three late Romantic German songs are a departure from DiDonato’s usual repertoire; she’s expressive and convincing though it would be interesting to experience their impact live with orchestra. In the end, the English language songs most effectively deliver DiDonato’s call for introspection. Her creamy sound, precise, nuanced diction, and ability to convey intensity through stillness communicate deep sincerity. It’s a beautiful album.

Issued by Erato, Eden is available on CD, vinyl, and mp3. The 17-city tour (two Russian dates were quietly canceled) kicked off in Brussels on March 2 and continues through April 24, with six dates in North America. For more information, go here.