11 December 2008

Furore! Furore! Furore!

She sings insanely well.

On Tuesday morning, I looked out the window to see snow falling in the garden in Beynes. Snow is a rare occurrence in this part of France, in recent years, yet it seemed only fitting that the macrocosm should reflect the importance of the day. For in Paris that evening, Joyce DiDonato made her début at the Salle Pleyel, joining Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques for a concert of arias featured on her new album, Furore!

Happily, Joyce’s appearances in Paris aren’t nearly so uncommon as snowfall — though, like the snow, she didn’t linger long, and she’s on the road again. The concert was spectacular in itself, and also as a marker of Joyce’s upward trajectory. When she made her début at the Opéra, as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, she was far from well-known — anywhere. It was almost a 42nd Street moment: as if Hugues Gall, the Intendant at the time, threw her into that leading role with the exhortation, You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!

That was 2002. Now, with other leading roles and concerts under her belt in this city, and an exciting solo album on its way to record stores worldwide, her stardom isn’t in question here. The Parisian public knows her, adores her, awaits her each appearance and greets her rapturously. “Gratitude” is Joyce’s word, but I’ll borrow it: I’m grateful to share such moments in her career.

Tidings of Comfort and Joyce:
Signing autographs at the Salle Pleyel
Photograph by Michael Benchetrit©

Furore! is a collection of mad scenes — or portraits of intense psychological distress, at least — by George Frideric Handel. Years ago, a friend summed up the emotional range of that composer with this assessment of Giulio Cesare: “Happy, sad, angry, sad, happy — the end.” Though influenced unduly by his analysis, I did eventually add a couple of emotional colors to that list, by hearing more works and other insightful singers. Yet Joyce’s approach to Handel was — and remains — a revelation to me. She makes Handel’s notes as expressive as Shakespeare’s words, and delves deeply into the genuine emotions behind them. Each aria becomes a soliloquy, and I have entirely revised my opinion of a composer I loved but never took very seriously.

It was interesting, too, to watch Joyce as an actress navigate the treacherous waters between full-out representation of the scene (which, out of narrative context, would risk making her look — well — nuts) and mere recitation (which would prove decidedly jarring). She struck a nice balance, I thought, registering just enough anguish in her facial expressions and gestures to assure us that, yes, she did know what she was singing about; and keeping the rest of her body still.

Distraught, as usual: Singing Dejanira in Hercules
(This kind of thing happens to Joyce all the time, you see.)
(Onstage, that is.)

Musically, she found distinctions between each character, and even more impressively, between each verse. The da capo structure of a Handel aria is “A–B–A”: a first idea is expressed; a second, contrasting idea follows; then the first idea is repeated and elaborated on. Remember, all the characters she was portraying up there are driven mad, most of them due to a lover’s infidelity; and then, each individual character necessarily repeats him- or herself. The lyrics are interchangeable; Handel provides only so much musical variety to keep these people separate in our minds, and Joyce and the orchestra have to provide the rest. How? Beats me. But it’s thrilling to hear.

I’m always happiest when she can play with the rhythm, stretching and snapping phrases, and she got to do a lot of that, especially in the second half. She gave us all kinds of ornaments and effects — absolutely required in Handel, in which the singing is supposed to compete with the elaborate sets and costumes, mechanical dragons, sword fights and explosions of the original productions, in the 18th century. (Everything about a Handel opera, properly done, should make the audience gasp.) Sometimes on Tuesday night, she might whiten her tone for a haunting, mournful effect; or she’d employ a messa di voce, the phenomenally difficult gradual crescendo and decrescendo of a note or line. She popped out runs, trills, roulades and every kind of firework, high notes, low notes, you name it. It was a helluva show.

Working with different conductors and orchestral ensembles means adapting the interpretation of an aria. Therefore, the way Joyce sings Ariodante’s numbers with Rousset now differs in some respects from the way she sang the role in a staged production in Geneva last year, with Kenneth Montgomery; the way she sings Dejanira’s numbers, from Hercules, won’t be the same now as it was in 2004, when she sang the role at the Palais Garnier, with William Christie. I’m dying to ask her about this process of reinterpretation.

Photograph by Michael Benchetrit©

And I may get a chance, because I’m lucky enough to know the lady. Close readers of this blog will recall my regret that I never had a Diva moment — reenacting the scene in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film, in which a young man walks with a singer through the empty streets of Paris at dawn. Well, it was only 2A.M., but I had an umbrella, Joyce obliged me, and Michael Benchetrit took a picture to commemorate the occasion.

An occasion, you must observe, that is even more rare than snowy days in Paris.

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