30 September 2007

Sunshine, or Joyce DiDonato

Joyce in a publicity photo:
Why didn't I bring my own camera?

I have discovered a new prescription for the blues, one that is less ingenious but more reliable than singing love songs to myself. Indeed, the beauty part is that I don’t have to sing at all: I can leave that to someone who actually knows how.

That someone is Joyce DiDonato, the mezzo-soprano from Kansas City. She blew through the neighborhood last night, singing the title role in Handel’s Alcina in concert in the nearby town of Poissy, with Alan Curtis conducting his Complesso Barocco. Alongside her were the luscious Québecoise soprano Karina Gauvin and the wily South African tenor Kobie van Rensburg, and a voice new to me, Franco-espagnol mezzo Maïté Beaumont, whose account of Ruggiero’s music was full-blooded and persuasive. Yet good as these folks were, for me it’s all about Joyce.

In a role that’s most often taken by sopranos, she offered up glittering melismas and penetrating psychological insights that made me eager to see her in a staged production. Rather than performing her several solos as stand-and-deliver declamations, she turned them into something quite like Shakespearean soliloquies. That’s far more nuanced and complex than the da capo structure usually admits. (The term means “from the top”: the first verse is followed by a contrasting verse, then repeated with elaborate ornamentation: A-B-A+.) Usually I’m perfectly content when a singer uses a number as Handel intended, and knocks my socks off. But Joyce is up to something here, and the role of Alcina — a lonely, sorceress, by turns manipulative and lovelorn, who falls under her own spell — provided her with abundant opportunity to explore a multidimensional character. Add to that Joyce’s special musical gifts, notably her phenomenal dynamic shadings and keen rhythm, and you’ve got yourself a great night in the concert hall.

Not all of this music is what you’d call happy, and very little of it was cathartic, yet I walked out feeling better than when I walked in. Joyce has that effect on me.

I’ve known her for a couple of years, starting with a telephone interview for Opera News. My long-lost brother, Darren Keith Woods, the dynamic director of Fort Worth Opera, introduced us after a performance of The Barber of Seville in Houston, and Darren reintroduced us several months later, here in Paris. Over dinner with Darren and the sublime pianist Mary Dibbern, Joyce invited me to hear her in the final dress rehearsal of the opera she’d come to town to sing: Handel’s Hercules, at the Palais Garnier. (There’s a video of this production, here.) Though I’d heard the opera, I’d never seen it before, and thus never fully grasped that Joyce’s character, Dejanira, sings almost ceaselessly through a catalogue of extreme emotions for four straight hours. I went backstage after the performance, expecting to find a limp noodle or a burned-up crust of mezzo, but Joyce burst out of her dressing room with a lusty cry of “Somebody beer me!”

We shut down the café, drinking and talking late into the night about art and life with her now-husband, Leo Vordoni (whose numerous, absurdly unfair gifts include being tall, dark and very, very handsome, as well as a wonderful conductor). That set a pattern for subsequent nights: Joyce sings, we go for a drink. Very often, we’ll be with a crowd of other people, yet it’s as if we’re alone in a coffee shop somewhere. I’m conscious that I’m monopolizing her, and probably preventing her from making useful social and professional contacts with other people at the table, and certainly preventing her from getting to sleep at a reasonable hour — but I can’t help myself. I don’t apologize for it, either, and I won’t promise that it won’t happen again. So there.

Rousseau and the Romantics led us to believe that any artist worth her salt must be egomaniacal, asocial and amoral, a rather savage beast. Happily, this turns out to be untrue in most artists I know (even the opera singers). Yet Joyce is so exceptionally unaffected, sincerely compassionate, and level-headed that it’s sometimes hard to reconcile her character with her sensitive, expressive artistry. Can anybody so pleasant really be so deep?

She’s no Pollyanna, yet when things sometimes go wrong in Joyce’s life, she maintains a generally sunny disposition that is disarming and, ultimately, contagious; she is a Phoebe in a world of Holden Caulfields. And if I had a kid sister, I hope she’d be like Joyce. She makes me feel special, and because she herself is so special, that’s a blessed favor.

Knowing that Joyce was in town only briefly, I was prepared to “settle” and just to hear her on Saturday night, but we went out for a drink and closed down yet another joint. A lovely evening, with lots of incidental pleasures: meeting Alan Curtis, whose recordings I own in abundance, and meeting Karina Gauvin, a memorable performer and a lively personality. (Backstage, a French couple said to her, “Are you from Canada? We hear your accent.” “And I hear yours!” Karina quipped.) I love to hang out with musicians: I admire their discipline, and I value their ability to describe the human condition — to tell a story — by other means than mine.

But really, it was all about Joyce. Again. And though it was long past midnight, and the moon was sailing high over Poissy, the sun was shining brightly in her smile.