20 July 2012

How I’ll Be Watching Joyce DiDonato’s ‘Homecoming’ Tonight on PBS

Just phonate!

Tonight on PBS, Joyce DiDonato returns to her hometown of Kansas City for a performance with Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony in the spectacular new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. (Check PBS for more information and for local listings.) The concert, Homecoming, was recorded live on March 24, and the program features The Deepest Desire, Jake Heggie’s song cycle to poems by Sister Helen Prejean, the real-life heroine of his first opera, Dead Man Walking, which is based on her writings.

Joyce made her New York City Opera debut (which was also her New York stage debut) in the role of Sister Helen, and Virgin Classics recently released a CD of the complete opera, recorded during her performances of Dead Man with Houston Grand Opera, Patrick Summers conducting. I know that associating with Sister Helen has uplifted both Joyce and Jake spiritually, and their interpretations of her poems couldn’t be more persuasive. (Joyce’s earlier recording of Deepest Desire and other contemporary songs won France’s coveted Diapason d’Or award a few years ago.) On my birthday (!), iTunes began offering a recording of the complete Kansas City concert for download, at an extremely attractive price.

Joyce and Maestro Stern take a bow.
Photo by Chris Lee from the PBS website.

The television broadcast omits some of the numbers and concentrates on Deepest Desire and one other work, Rossini’s cantata about Joan of Arc, Giovanna d’Arco. Joyce is one of the finest exponents of Rossini around, and I’m sure this performance will be a knockout, as well as a thematic link to Sister Helen and to Joyce’s own upbringing: Catholic girls with a mission.

But in the case of the cantata, unlike that of Jake’s song cycle, the words are almost beside the point. No less an authority than Stendhal advises audiences, when listening to Rossini’s music, to make up their own stories. And in the event that you’d like to know what story I’ll be telling myself while Joyce is singing tonight, I’d like to provide you with a synopsis.

Everything’s up to date:
The Kauffman Center was designed by Moishe Safdie.


Giovanna is a typical country girl from Kansas. She attends a typical high school, where she is president of the 4-H Club and where her uncanny resemblance to the actor Jake Gyllenhaal goes largely unnoticed. Recently, she has won a prize for best sheep at the county fair, and she shares with us her secret: fleeces grow fluffier when she sings the sheep to sleep.

Giovanna’s peaceful existence is troubled, however, when she begins experiencing strange visions. A gigantic, menacing rabbit appears to her and commands her to overthrow the English invaders who are oppressing the land. It is God’s will, the Rabbit says.

Giovanna points out that there are no English invaders in Kansas. “How can you be sure?” the Rabbit replies. “They lurk amongst us, speaking English, after all.”

Giovanna wrestles with her conscience, while the Rabbit wrestles with a sheep. At last she submits to God’s will. Arming herself in her brother’s football helmet and an old axe from the woodpile, she storms the English classroom at her high school.

Meanwhile, the Rabbit eats the sheep.

Confronting her English teacher, Giovanna proclaims that the land rightly belongs to the King of France and to God. The Rabbit appears, and hands Giovanna a coveted Diapason d’Or award, while the English teacher retreats to the principal’s office.

Suddenly, Giovanna awakens with a start. She is at home, in her bed. Her mother is cooking dinner — and the steak is burnt. As smoke fills her simple country bedroom, Giovanna runs into the yard and gathers her sheep around her to await the arrival of the volunteer fire department.

“It was all just a dream!” she murmurs as she reflects on her strange experiences — little realizing that the Rabbit is standing right behind her.


Joyce takes a bow after singing Giovanna d’Arco.
Photo by Parker Eshelman from the PBS website.

UPDATE: PBS has posted the complete video of Homecoming on its website. Click here to watch!


Anonymous said...

When I saw the orchestra on PBS I immediately turned to your blog to find out what was going on. Your informative blog is great.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks so much! I do like to share the pleasures I find -- especially in Joyce's singing.

Will said...

I saw this program, fortunately, and while I could have wished for more uninterrupted performances, I realize that the purpose of the it wasn't a presentation of the concert but a documentary event with commentary.

I saw Joyce at NYCO in Dead Man and was tremendously impressed, and have been so consistently in everything I have seen her do since.