17 January 2008

Cinderella Story

Joyce DiDonato, in Joan Font’s production of Cenerentola,
as seen (not by me) in Houston last year

Photo from Houston Grand Opera

I am accustomed to a high degree of authenticity in the performances of Joyce DiDonato. Indeed, I rely on it. When I listen to her sing, I know I will hear many truths.

What I don’t expect is that I will wind up reenacting the truths she tells me. Yet that’s more or less what happened this week in Barcelona.

Joyce was wrapping up a run as Rossini’s Cinderella character, Angelina in La Cenerentola. It’s a signature role for her, and I’d never heard her sing the part except on records, and one aria (“Nacqui all’affanno/Non più mesta”) a few times in concert; the production, by Joan Font, director of the Catalan troupe Els Comediants, was a big hit in Houston last season; and I’d never visited the opera house, the Gran Teatro del Liceu, before. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Yet on Monday evening, as my high-speed train pulled slooooooowly into the station (a mere eight and a half hours late), Joyce was wrestling with a throat infection, and nobody knew for certain whether she’d sing that night. That is, nobody knew whether Cinderella would be able to attend the ball.

Sing she did, and brilliantly. The reconciliation scene with her wicked stepfather (sung by Carlos Chausson) was revelatory. Who knew this score possessed such emotional depth? I could just picture Rossini himself, immensely pleased (if secretly somewhat surprised) with the results. He’d be strutting up and down the aisles of the Liceu, saying to one and all, “How do you like that? I wrote it!”

Afterward, we went out for our traditional post-show beer, and we added a dash of local color: tapas. We were joined by Joyce’s husband, the conductor Leonardo Vordoni, who despite ample opportunity to change his ways, remains obstinately taller, more talented and better looking than I; by the pianist David Zobel, and by two friends from Geneva, Monika and Carmen. We agreed to meet up again for dinner the next night.

No less an authority than Marcel Proust recommends beer as a remedy for sore throats. But the next day, Joyce was still feeling poorly, and with another performance looming on Friday, she wisely opted to stay home instead of whooping it up in Barcelona’s byways. Trouble is, when she tried to let me know the dinner plans were off, she phoned me and left a message. And my cell phone doesn’t work outside France.

And so I stood in front of the majestic Barcelona cathedral for much of Tuesday evening, waiting in vain. At one point, I ran to an Internet café to check my e-mail, but there was (of course) no message. I went back to the Cathedral. Still no sign of the gang. I figured I’d simply misunderstood.

Somebody beer me!
(Please note that this was Joyce’s first and only beer —
and that neither of us emptied our glasses.
The camera, not the beverage or the subject,
is responsible for the blurriness.)

The next afternoon, at about 1:25, I returned to the Internet café. But the place was closed, so I wandered around for half an hour, exploring the working-class neighborhood just behind the theater. At 2:00, the café reopened, and I found the expected messages from Joyce, miserable to have crossed wires (or to have lacked wires), and proposing that I join her and David for lunch and a little sightseeing. “Can you meet us in front of the Liceu at 1:30?” she asked.

Dear reader, I’d been within a few meters of them, but I hadn’t known it. When I went exploring, if I’d turned left instead of right, I’d have walked in front of the theater, and fallen right on top of Joyce and David. We’d have been telling the story for years to come. But by now, it was 2:03, and they were gone.

I spent the next couple of hours poking my nose into every restaurant in the Barri Gòtic; then I tried staking out the Cathedral again. But there was no trace of my Cinderella. And then I turned into a pumpkin and had to catch my train back to Paris.

In Lyon a few weeks ago, Guignol tried to warn me: without a slipper, the Prince couldn’t find Cinderella. (Granted, I’m not Joyce’s Prince Charming — that’s Maestro Vordoni’s role — but the warning seems to apply to other people, too.) Can you imagine if I reacted this way to every opera Joyce sings? In a couple of months, she’s going to perform Bellini’s version of Romeo and Juliet, I Capuleti e i Montecchi — if I identify as closely with that story, I could wind up dead!

Yet what seems most important is not the bad luck but my great good fortune, and as Joyce’s wonderful blog has dwelt lately on the concept of gratitude, now it’s my turn to be grateful: I went to Barcelona and heard a spectacular performance, I got to hang out a little while with the diva — and I understand the truth of the Cinderella story more completely than ever.