02 October 2009

DiDonato, the Muse

DiLightful, DiLicious, DiLovely

The mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato opens tomorrow as Rosina in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It’s a super part for her, the vehicle for her debuts with the Paris Opera (in Coline Serreau’s production), Vienna Staatsoper and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the first role I got to see her perform live, at Houston Grand Opera in 2004.* Less happily — though triumphantly, in the end — Rosina is the role Joyce was singing when she broke her leg, at Covent Garden this summer.

Her take on the character is compelling: Joyce’s Rosina is a match for every schemer in this seething plot, and her bel canto technique serves as a kind of audible indicator of her constantly whirling intelligence. A smart cookie, she’s not waiting around to be rescued (unlike some Rosinas). She’s also damned funny, and Joyce is one of the few singers I’ve heard who can get laughs in “Una voce poco fa,” though she resorts to no mugging or underlining, nor even English translation, to make her point.

It’s a good time to be a Joyce DiDonato fan. She’s just been named one of the recipients of this year’s Opera News Awards — not bad, especially considering that her professional career is barely a decade old, and that she’s the youngest artist yet to receive this honor. Even if you live far from New York, two new CDs and a DVD release offer plenty of reasons to admire her. And something Joyce wrote on her blog — in describing the “Lessons Learned” from her broken leg — has helped me to understand a little better what sets her apart as an artist.

I attended performances of both Rossini’s La Cenerentola in Barcelona (recorded for the new DVD) and Handel’s Alcina (one of the new CDs) in concert in Poissy. Though I could hardly sing along with either opera, they’re both reasonably familiar to me — so I was surprised by the psychological depth and emotional resonance Joyce found in her roles. Simply stated, I didn’t think this music had so much to offer. Where did she find these colors, this truth?

Here’s what Joyce had to say about adapting her performance, singing Rosina from a wheelchair in London this summer:
… I realized that because I could rely less on my physical body to “act” for me, I had to resort more and more to simply the voice. Back in my AVA days in Philadelphia, we had a brilliant monster of a Maestro who tormented us with unmatchable expectations and demands…. BUT, he would spend literally HOURS on a single page of recitative until we got all the myriad colors to literally burst off the page. “ACT WITH YOUR VOICE NOT WITH YOUR HANDS!!!” It was exhausting, demoralizing work, (“Can’t I do ONE phrase right? WHAT MORE DOES HE WANT FROM ME? BLOOD!?!?!?”), and yet in the end, to this day, I can hear his voice in my head as I prepare those recits, and I drew on that voice while in my chair to concentrate even further my “vocal acting” to bring this character to life.
Uninterrupted Melody: Joyce at Covent Garden

Reading this, I had a Eureka Moment. Joyce finds all these nuances because she works. Her training — frustrating though it may have been, at times — seems to have led her to the conviction that any music worth singing must contain multiple dimensions, “myriad colors,” and no single solution. So in preparing a role, the longer and harder she works, the more deeply she must delve into the minds of both the composer and the character: Why these notes, instead of some others? What is being said here? What does it mean? How can I express that meaning?

Apparently, Joyce isn’t satisfied until she discovers a fully rounded character, one who can be described with more than a single adjective and a noun: thus, her Alcina isn’t merely “a vengeful sorceress,” but a kind of distaff Prospero, mingling desire and regret, righteousness and melancholy, tenderness and fire. That she did all this without benefit of a stage production is all the more remarkable, because she entered so completely into her role: one felt one was watching a play (with lots of very difficult music).

Watch Cenerentola to see the extraordinary range of emotion Joyce brings to this opera’s conclusion: newly engaged to the handsome prince (Juan Diego Flórez), Joyce’s Angelica turns to her father and stepsisters and tenderly pleads with them for reconciliation, almost as if it’s they who must pardon her. You sense the pain she suffered at their hands, because that can’t ever be wiped away, but you also sense that, to Angelica, the pain is not what matters.

All of this she communicates in one of the most technically demanding arias ever written, in which many a mezzo has been content merely to hit the notes and to convey a generic sweetness. Joyce’s communicative powers don’t rely exclusively on words and music. In the closing measures of Cenerentola in Barcelona, Joyce’s performance — silent — literally took my breath away. (Though video clips of this scene have been on YouTube since the opera was first telecast, in 2008, they’re blurry, so the higher quality of the DVD image will be welcome.)

Her other new CD, Colbran, the Muse, a collection of arias wirtten by Rossini for the legendary mezzo Isabella Colbran, consists primarily of material I haven’t heard Joyce sing — but I think you’ll understand why I’m so eagerly anticipating that first listen. Yes, it’s a very good time.

*NOTE: My first glimpse of Joyce was in the video of Mark Adamo’s Little Women, from the HGO production. Shot in high-definition and projected against an entire hotel-room wall, her performance was nuanced down to the batting of her eyelashes, and Joyce made Meg’s aria, “Things Change, Jo,” a genuinely transformative experience.

That video screening was quite an experience: the first time I heard or saw Joyce, the first time I heard Mark’s music, and the first time I met Joy Partain, who was in the HGO press office at the time. How often does one establish so many important and lasting relationships, just by watching television?

On the cover of the CD, Joyce (far right) is joined by Margaret Lloyd (Amy), Stacy Tappan (Beth), and Stephanie Novacek (brilliant as Jo).

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