Back at the U of C, a Joyce Didonato Recital

We first heard Joyce Didonato when she made her Lyric debut in 2008, as Rosina in Barber of Seville. She gave an inspiring performance, and we were enthralled by her consummate acting and singing of Una Voce Poca Va, the aria which shot her to international acclaim. Afterwards, we had the good fortune of catching her give Roger Pines an hour long interview at the newly dedicated drama center up the street from where we live.

Over the past three years, I’ve kept up with her rapid ascendancy to the international stage, through her blog and her DVDs (including the one of her remarkable performance in Covent Garden, where she sang on a wheel chair after having fallen off the stage on opening night).

So it was with great excitement when I found out that the U of C had managed to snare her to give her debut recital concert in Chicago. What amazing fortune! Tickets at Mandel Hall were only $35 ($5 for students, though I was ethical enough time time around to cough up the full fare, even though I still have my student card, hehe), and we had great seats! She’s ending her US recital tour at Carnegie Hall, where tickets will doubtless be many times more dear.

Anyway, I had such a terrific time! Though I had only heard a couple songs in her chosen program before, we were provided with copies of the translated texts so we could follow along. Her voice filled every corner of that intimate space and sent shivers down my spine. She sang selection of songs and arias by Haydn, Charminade, Hahn, and Rossini.

Although we had originally arranged to meet up with friends after the concert, we had to take a rain check at the end because the concert went on for longer than we’d expected. Even then, I didn’t want the evening to end.

The following is a review by the Washington Post of her recent recital there, which was the same program she gave tonight. We were luckier in Chicago though – Mandel Hall is a much cosier space (seats less than 1000). 🙂

DiDonato keeps everything in the moment at recital
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011

Be they bored, rapt or somewhere in between, everyone in a concert hall is moving together through the same two hours. The great achievement of a performance, though, is to suspend time so that everyone is existing, however briefly, in the same moment – a piece of distilled awareness in the form of sound.

It happened at the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s recital at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Tuesday night, more than once. Whether she was singing a dramatic monologue, such as Haydn’s challenging “Scena di Berenice,” which opened the program, or a song by Cecile Chaminade, fleeting and iridescent as a soap bubble, DiDonato would find a phrase and sing so solidly to the heart of the music, luxuriating in each note, that the sound opened and breathed and blossomed. Rather than being propelled forward, everyone hovered in the moment, together, not wanting it to end.

This is an awfully highfalutin way to describe a singer who isn’t highfalutin at all. DiDonato, 42, has reached her current career heights – she’s one of the biggest stars in opera – precisely by being so eminently herself. She’s a down-to-earth presence, giving not artifice, but herself, whether in music, in spoken interludes between her sets, or even, offstage, on the blog (“Yankeediva”) she’s kept for years.

And part of the magic of her recital Tuesday is that it wasn’t flawless, but human. The huge spaces of the Kennedy Center are anything but ideal for the intimacy of a song recital, offering smaller-scale works for a single unamplified voice, and DiDonato succumbed at times to the temptation to push her voice a bit, particularly in some of the faster songs (the end of the Haydn, or “La Chanson de Zora” in a Rossini set, or Chaminade’s “Villanelle”).

But the humanity is precisely what made the singing so luminous in the vast majority of the offerings. Rather than a china doll, or an image of perfection, DiDonato is always present as a real person who cares about what she’s doing. She backs this up with a gorgeous vocal technique and ease of delivery (indeed, I should qualify the quibble about her pushing by adding that she never tries to take her voice into the wrong repertory).

Her voice is lyrical rather than heavy or dramatic, with a shining freshness that gave a particular radiance to the French songs (the Chaminade set and Reynaldo Hahn’s cycle “Veneziana), and a caramel warmth to its depths that glowed in the showstopping aria from Rossini’s “Otello,” supported by her eager accompanist, David Zobel. (This opera, now nearly forgotten, was a huge hit in its day, and this particular aria heavily influenced Giuseppe Verdi’s treatment of the same scene in his own “Otello” 70 years later.)

DiDonato is on tour with this recital, leading up to her mainstage Carnegie Hall debut in March that will include the world premiere of a new song cycle by Jake Heggie. At the Kennedy Center, she replaced that with the Hahn cycle and with three light serenades, including the sugary “La Spagnola” by Vincenzo Di Chiara. For some singers, this would have been too much sugar, but DiDonato pulled it off with the force of her own conviction – and countered any incipient charges of lightness with the aria from Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago,” stunningly sung, as a generous encore. (She followed it with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as a tribute to Gerald Perman, who 20 years ago founded Vocal Arts D.C., a producer of the event along with the Washington Performing Arts Society.)

Before her encore, DiDonato made a few comments from the stage that segued into her feelings about the largely peaceful transfer of power in Egypt. In a field that so often seems to exist in a rarefied atmosphere away from the world, she has the directness of a pop musician – not to try to impose any kind of political message on a program, but just to remind everyone of the world of which classical music is a part.

Of course, when you give as lovely a recital as DiDonato did, you can say just about anything you want.

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