01 March 2012

Joyce DiDonato Sings ‘Les Nuits d’été’

Grammy Girl: Joyce sang “Non più mesta” from Rossini’s Cenerentola at this year’s ceremony, shortly before winning the award for her Divo/Diva album.

What happy moments are those when a favorite artist sings a favorite piece of music! And even happier when it all turns out as good as you’d hoped — or better than you’d dared to hope.

Because, after all, some artists can still take you by surprise, no matter how well you think you know what they can do.

And so Joyce DiDonato ticked another item off my wish list for her, joining Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic for Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été (The Nights of Summer) last week. She’s sung this six-song cycle before, she says, but she never did so in my hearing and not for several years. She’s sung other Berlioz fairly often, though, and lately she’s gained in confidence and fluency in her French, which promised to make her exploration of this music all the more meaningful.

As if to heighten my celebratory mood,
Joyce wore her Grammy gown to the Philharmonic, too.

I knew she’d knock the “Villanelle” out of the park: swift, almost giddy, it’s one number that really earns its “summertime” designation, and it’s imbued with a sunny good cheer that pretty closely resembles what you’d expect from a girl who just won a Grammy Award. But the four next songs in the cycle take us to pain, yearning and loss — and Joyce was ready.

Having heard Joyce sing the role of Sycorax in the Met’s Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island three times this winter, with its abundance of brilliant, rapid-fire ornamentation, I’d almost forgotten the pleasures of hearing her sing a simpler line. The rhythmic sureness that makes her pyrotechnics so pleasurable serves her equally well in slow numbers, and at several points in “L’Absence,” “Sur les lagunes,” and “Au Cimitière,” the Philharmonic really took its cues from her, not the conductor.

Far and away the high point of the evening for me was “Le Spectre de la rose,” which Joyce stretched out to heartbreaking effect, while the Philharmonic rewarded her with the softest, sweetest playing imaginable. She sustained this delicate mood, letting it waft over us like the aroma of the wilting flower she described — then soared in triumph, reminding us that the memory of the rose will live on, and that its moment of glory, resting on the bosom of a beautiful woman, has exalted it far above the status of kings.

The theme of this concert was color, and that happens to be one of Joyce’s private, personal obsessions as a musician: these songs turned out to be (naturally) like catnip to her. She ranged from the shimmering brilliance of the “Villanelle” to the dark-purple tragedy of “Sur les lagunes,” and darned near every Crayola in between — and, oh, how I loved the boyish swagger of “L’Île inconnue,” in which the narrator tries to lure a pretty girl to run away with him. Playing all those trouser roles has really paid off for Joyce, and I could just about see the radiant blue skies of the seashore behind her.

Maybe because I first learned this music through Régine Crespin’s recording, I’ve always imagined that “L’Île inconnue” takes place on a quai in the Vieux Port of Marseille, Crespin’s hometown. That recording struck me as definitive, flawless in every way, such that it took another singer-friend, Susan Graham, to persuade me that other people’s interpretations of the Nuits d’été might demand (and reward) my attention, too, might be equally valid in unique and unexpected ways.

Now I’ve got a new summertime-singer to cherish, and even if Joyce never records these songs (though, please God, let her record them!), the memory of this performance will stay with me like the specter of a rose.

Which didn’t stop me from making with the jokes. As you can see.

One performance of Les Nudités was all it took to teach Joyce to read her contracts more carefully.
Illustration by WVM.

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