Posts Tagged ‘Joyce DiDonato’

Pursuing furies

I have Joyce DiDonato’s Handel recital Furore for a while and have been listening to it trying to form an opinion. She is a singer I like and, while I try to be objective about her, I am afraid I end on being rigorous. Anyway, a recital of arie di furie, especially live as she has done around the time of this CD’s release, is far from an easy task. The point of these arias is to be beyond oneself – and it is very difficult to do that for a long time span, especially in a repertoire that demands absolute technical abandon. That is precisely the challenge – how to reconcile the demands of technical control and emotional explosion. I believe that Joyce DiDonato has achieved an optimal compromise – every item displays thorough technical control and perfect understanding of dramatic situations. But how effective such a compromise could be in music that should show you beyond any kind of compromise?

For example, Where shall I fly? is a great improvement on her performance on DVD, in which she gets overwhelmed by the theatrical demands and sacrifices too often musical values – in the end she seems to be having far more fun than the audience. Not here – her portray is very detailed, extremely musical and expressive. If I am not entirely convinced, it is because the despair is conveyed from declamatory effects added upon rather than presented in her voice. This is probably why her Scherza, infida, beautifully and sensitively sung as it is, does not really move me when I compare her to Lorraine Hunt, who does not need to make any particular point: the voice alone expresses it all. The sound carries that intensity in itself. And Ariodante is not trying to convincing anyone about anything, he is just experimenting that pain by and for himself.

I can hardly blame DiDonato for the elegant quality of her voice that makes her too chic for the circumstances, but the portrait of fury requires something really wild and dangerous in the proceedings. I have recorded a CD of arie di furie for a friend and the first item that came to my mind was Voglio strage from Graun’s Cesare e Cleopatra, as sung by Iris Vermillion. It seems her voice is going to get out of track in the next moment – she sings some key words such as superbo and ingrato in raw chest voice, produces some rather strained high options, keeps a certain pressure in her voice  – it is all overblown, but it keeps you to the edge of your seats and you REALLY believe her character is truly freaking out right then. The problem about those performances is to discover the limits of exaggeration, going dangerously close but not trespassing them. But you have to throw some dishevelment in the procedures. If it sounds too proper, then it is not working. In her performance of Tu me da me divide from Pergolesi’s L’Olimpiade, Simone Kermes really throws protocol to the airs stressing key words through dynamics, spitting her text as if she was really frantic and no-one will ever doubt how enraged she is. Is this over-the-top? Yes – but when one looses one’s temper, one is not supposed to stay put. Of course, this is a difficult balance. Kermes herself, for example, went way beyond that line in her recent appearance at the AIDS Gala in Berlin, in which she got so overwhelmed by her own attitude that in the end the whole thing had little to do with Hasse. (I still like her customary “I’m-not-a-diva-with-a-fragance-with-my-name”-approach though…).

Back to DiDonato, I don’t feel that danger in her performances in this disc. Even Crude furie from Serse, which she sang really forcefully on French TV with Jean-Cristoph Spinosi, sounds here relatively tame, the important low notes not truly percutant as they should, the runs too poised…  No one can accuse her of not trying in Teseo’s Morirò ma vendicata, but she does not seem on top of the game as she should there, rather fazed with the difficult fast declamation than fully invested in it.

If I have to point out one item in Furore that really works for me, this would be Amadigi’s Desterò dall’empia dite.  Although Melissa feels spurned by Amadigi and revengeful towards Oriana, in this aria, she seems very much mistress of herself, while invoking the forces of hell to fight for her. In it, DiDonato sounds rightly formidable and the chic makes her sorceress particularly effective. It is also a soprano role, which seems to seat better in her voice in those arie di furie. You just have to listen to Alan Curtis’s Alcina, in which Joyce DiDonato dispels any doubt of her ability to portray fury in Ma quando tornerai. More Handelian soprano roles from her then? Time will tell.


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Listening to the broadcast of Handel’s Ariodante from Geneva (November 17th), I began to fear that a new and definitely unwelcome fashion may have crept into the performance style of Handel works. The two or three readers of this weblog may remember my opinion about Magdalena Kozená’s new Handel disc. Apparently, the Czech mezzo-soprano is not the only victim of this quasi Schwarzkopfian heavy interpretative style.

Although Switzerland recalls rather cold clockwork precision, the highly talented group of singers gathered there is amazingly heavy-handed in their treatment of Handel, as if they were trying to infuse large doses of theatricality and drama in every syllable, regardless if the patient actually needs this medicine – or if he is, for that matter, really ill.

It is true that there is a preconceived notion that Handel’s music is rather graceful than powerful and that his operas’ contrived libretti are helpless. But that is the prejudiced opinion. Artists should know better and this new let’s-help-the-composer-to-get-his-point-clear approach is ultimately offensive to the genius who created these impressive and undying masterpieces. Although these singers might have the impression that they are giving their hearts and soul to Handel while pumping their own emotionalism and excitement into Handel’s music, they are actually being narcissistic and concentrating too much in their own excitement. I know that there is no historical evidence whatsoever of how a singer should tackle interpretation of Handel operas, but I would simply let the music speak for itself too see which approach fits the music better.

We must always keep in mind that, although human feelings are always the same, the way they are portrayed in art has changed a lot. I am sure that there are lots of people in New York or Paris who were born with a post-modern Weltanschauung, but the rest of us tend to have a default Romantic point-of-view. This is probably why most people see baroque opera as cold technical display. However, those who have interest in baroque art and its complex code of expression, the affetti, will understand that these works are immerse in emotions, once you open your eyes to the peculiarities of its aesthetics. When a singer drowns the purity of a line with Puccinian vibrant top notes and parlando effects, he is presenting nothing other than a transvesti of a performance, neither powerful in the way a Wagnerian or a Verdian would recognise it nor satisfying in its unstylishness for those who happen to care about that.

When you listen to Lorraine Hunt’s Scherza, infida, there are no artifficially inserted interpretative reminders of Ariodante’s predicaments; the much lamented late American mezzo-soprano’s performance is a single profound statement of pain and despair. Her inbuilt intensity doesn’t need to go against Handelian phrases; on the contrary, it invests Handelian lines, it reveals the expression reserved in the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic brushstrokes with which the master portrayed that particular dramatic situation.

Although Waltraud Meier probably never sang any note by Handel in her life, I remember an interview of hers in which she says that the great challenge for an artist is to surrender. Singers tend to clad themselves with ideas before they go on stage in order to produce this or that impression – but according to Meier letting the music speak by itself is the ultimate courageous act: going before the audience and not trying to produce this or that impression but open yourself to the whole spectrum of expressive possibilities. Of course, this is risky business if you don’t have artistic maturity.

Anyway, back to Geneva, I have to confess the main issue is, of course, Joyce DiDonato. She is a great Handelian singer whose purity of line, technical finish and good taste rarely let the listener down. Curiously, the only time I really did not connect to a performance by her was watching her DVD of Handel’s Hercules, in which her Dejanira was so expressionistically handled that I couldn’t help thinking she was having far more fun than I was. Her Ariodante does not reach that level of schyzophrenia, but again I did not recognise her in that over-the-top approach which only made her voice tense and her singing a bit unstylish. When Patricia Petibon does that in the same performance, it does not surprise me. I always have the impression she is trying to sing Verdi’s La Forza del Destino into baroque music, making her damsells in distress sound nothing but particularly hysterical.

I have read that DiDonato is really going deep into her portrayal of Alcina, studying the text with thorough investigative eye and discovering many and many things, but I hope the results are not preciosistic and overambitious, that all those discoveries of hers will illuminate rather than overshadow the dramatic truth she is looking for. It would be a pity to see her fall in the same trap Kozená could not avoid.

PS – On second thought, I realise I was unfair to speak about the cast in Geneva’s Ariodante in a generic way. I should point out that Varduhi Abrahamyan is an outstanding Polinesso, a name to watch, and that Amanda Forsythe and Charles Workman are quite commendable in the parts of Dalinda and Lucanio. Patricia Petibon herself has indeed some beautiful moments, but most of the time she is trying to pour Medea-like intensity into the role of the vulnerable Ginevra. If she had a Medea-like voice, one could discuss if this is a valid possibility. As for Joyce DiDonato, I have the impression that, although she sang it unfailingly well, the role is a bit low for her voice and if you overlook the almost verismo-like pathos of Scherza, infida or Cieca notte, there is a breathtaking Doppo notte sung with true technical aplomb. I must point out that reviewers who saw the opera live tended to have the opposite opinion of mine – I am sure that live at the theatre the visuals must have given sense to a musical performance that sounds overdone when listened to alone.

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Let me start with the apologies – it is not the I am overbusy, but I am actually doing 100 things at the same time right now. That could be my excuse not to answer some e-mails I have received – but they are high on my “to do [too]” list!

Now the eulogies, which are actually related to the things I am actually doing right now. Because I am: a) preparing a course on History of Opera (it is amazing how fast we get rusty when we stay away of this “teaching” thing); b) reworking the discography of Bellini’s Sonnambula for re:opera; c) recording some CDs I owe lots of people (and, of course, I still have my “official” job), I have been listening to many different things.

I have to confess that preparing a CD for a friend who doesn’t like tenors (and wants to be convinced maybe she is wrong to feel that way about the poor guys who have to sing up there) has proved to be a very difficult task. I am trying to select examples of tenors who have more to show than stamina and fervour and would rather go for tone-colouring, legato and dynamic variety. I acknowledge that coping with high tessitura and those requirements is not easy. As I have decided to be strict and avoid glottal attacks, lachrimosity, carelessness in low register and other disfiguring effects, I was surprised to find myself entirely “dispossessed of” Italian repertoire. I must explain myself – my idea is giving pride of place to purity of line and user-friendlier tonal quality over temper or dramatic vividness.

As it is, so far the fully satisfying entries (in the sense of both technical and expressive perfection) are Nicolai Gedda singing Je crois entendre encore (from Bizet’s Les Pecheurs de Perles) live in Munich, Rainer Trost singing Un’aura amorosa (in Gardiner’s Cosi) and I have decided to try my luck with Rolando Villazón’s intense Monteverdi (from Emmanuelle Haïm’s CD). I haven’t found the right example of Fritz Wunderlich yet, but it is a matter of honour to find it. In any case, I am pleased to check how great Francisco Araiza was in his pre-Wagnerian days. His Mozart concert arias (with Hager) and Schubert Lieder(both in studio and live in Hohenems) are the most lovely pieces of singing in my “choice” of arias so far – the warm radiance of his singing back then sounds as if Lucia Popp had been reborn a tenor. Nobody speaks of Araiza anymore – and this is really unfair! So here it is – the whole point in this post was to say that.

My other praise goes AGAIN for Joyce DiDonato. I have read what she wrote about Handel’s Alcina and cannot help saying she really got the point. I believe that the role of Alcina was a token of gratitude from the composer to the soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò, who faifthfully followed him to the Covent Garden after the incidents who made him leave the King’s Theatre. Of course I have no proof of what I am saying, but one can felt that in the music.

Also, my admiration for DiDonato has known a new dimention now: she could count me as a fan both of her singing and blogging, but now I have also discovered her photos.

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I would write something more complicate, but laziness prevents it. While listening to Varviso’s recording of Barbiere di Siviglia, I felt like posting something about the absolute Rossini mezzo soprano, which is Teresa Berganza. Call me obnoxious, but my opinion is that between Berganza and Joyce DiDonato there is nothing really worth the detour.

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