25 September 2010

Week of Mezzo-Madness, Part 2: Joyce DiDonato

The Constant Scholar: Joyce spends long hours in the library,
studying difficult scores.

When Gabriel Bacquier says of American singers, “You are always perfectly prepared,” one of the first examples who spring instantly to my mind is mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. I hesitate to call her a perfectionist, because there’s a joyless connotation to the term, and joy is the essence of her art. It’s more apt to say that Joyce is a seeker of justice: for the composer, for the audience, and for her endlessly creative expression.

And so, when she shares a piece of music with you, you can be sure that she’s lived with it, studied it, taken it apart and put it back together again, until she knows it thoroughly and she’s ready to communicate with it. How can you tell that this is so? Because you never see any effort whatever. None. Believe me, I’ve looked. The paradox is that it’s precisely when Joyce’s song is most polished that it becomes most fresh and spontaneous. She liberates the music.*

Of course, because Joyce is human, as well as American, there must be intervening stages on the path to perfect preparation. It is even possible (I’m speculating here) that there are occasions when she opens a score and says, “What the heck am I going to do with this?” But most of us will never get to see that part of the process.

Last night was a partial exception, because Joyce sang several arias in public for the first time, in concert with the orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon, under the direction of Kazushi Ono. They’re putting together a new album, and they came to Paris as a way of taking this new material for a test-spin. Frankly, one had to listen pretty closely to guess that these musicians had been working together for only a week: the performance was never less than professional and compelling. But it was as close as we’re likely to get to understanding how Joyce DiDonato operates.

Pretty Boy: As Cherubino at the Met

The title of the album is Diva/Divo, and in the program, Joyce explores pairings of female and male characters — whether their story is told by different composers or within the same opera. Joyce’s voice has so many colors and such range (her high notes are frankly awesome) that the album concept is brilliant, not only because she sings so many trouser roles.** Thus she opened with Mozart’s Cherubino, followed with Susanna’s “Deh, vieni non tardar,” from the same opera, Le Nozze di Figaro. Cherubino was one of her early calling-cards, the vehicle for her Metropolitan Opera debut, and she just sang it in Chicago, too, a few months ago. But she’d never sung Susanna anywhere, and moreover, the role is usually a soprano.

There are precedents, women who sing both roles, and in fact my beloved Teresa Stratas, though never a mezzo, was a noted Cherubino–turned–Susanna. You’d never have guessed at Joyce’s inexperience. She turned “Deh, vieni” into something absolutely magical and spell-binding, creating an atmosphere of moonlight and anticipation that absolutely transported me.

Another new item in her repertoire, her account of Gluck’s “Amour, viens rendre à mon âme” blew me out of my seat with its blazing, heroic intensity. “I’m going to face down every obstacle,” Joyce sang, and there could be no doubt in anyone’s mind that, as Orpheus, she’d prevail. She was completely in character, acting up a storm in this and several other numbers, including her bis, Sesto’s “Parto, parto” from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, a perfect fit for her voice.

So what were the signs that she was still exploring the music? Mostly technical, and, as I say, very hard to spot. Some of the low notes, particularly in an earlier aria from Mozart’s Clemenza, weren’t delivered with Joyce’s customary élan, and in a few passages over the course of the evening, she and the orchestra hadn’t quite established some dynamic nuances — which is a polite way to say that, a couple of times, I couldn’t hear her over the instruments. Normally, this is never a problem, and Joyce can dial up or down to suit the mood, the orchestration, and the size of the hall. In future performances (to say nothing of the new recording), she really won’t need sound engineers to make adjustments.

I know I’ve used this picture before, but it’s one of my favorites.

The counterpart to Gluck’s Orpheus was Offenbach’s Eurydice, and Joyce offered a really lovely “La mort m’apparaît souriante” from Orpheus in the Underworld that seemed to end just as it got started. This is largely Offenbach’s fault, of course, though it’s also an issue of programming (why choose something that feels so incomplete?) and, frankly, an issue of editing, too (could the song have been extended, or could something else have been tacked onto it?). However, Joyce is so canny that, before long, I expect she’ll have shaped the piece so that it won’t feel like the preamble to something larger — and her audience won’t be leaning forward and thinking, “And? And?!?” Or else she’ll sing something else.***

The Lyon orchestra gave us some instrumental interludes, too. In the first half of the program, we heard two sinfoniettas by Francis Poulenc, lovingly played and yet discordant, simply because the music has so little connection, historically and stylistically, to the vocal offerings. Better programming choices came in the second half, when the Lyonnais performed the overtures to Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride and Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict. The Lyonnais are among the best opera orchestras I’ve ever heard; they play a vast and varied repertoire each season, and nothing seems to faze them.

We got a terrific show on Wednesday night, and I daresay that much of the audience wasn’t even aware that this was a work in progress. An extra pleasure for me came from watching that audience respond to Joyce: as she has sung more and more often here, winning an ever-wider circle of admirers and lately attaining superstar-status, she’s held onto the personal qualities (as well as the artistry, of course) that endeared her to the Parisians in the first place.

To cite but one example: they love it when she speaks French. Her fluency is vastly improved over the past few years (as a flurry of print and broadcast interviews this summer can attest), but her audience finds the remaining defects thoroughly charming: I hasten to point out that they do not react this way to other Americans, when we speak their language.

In this, as in so many other regards, Joyce is singularly prodigious, and Wednesday’s concert gave me abundant reminders of that. It was a night to celebrate.

*NOTE: My perception of Joyce’s artistic heroism — her quest for “justice” and “liberation” — may be influenced by my consciousness of her childhood admiration for Wonder Woman.

**The cover art for the new album is pretty terrific, too, with contrasting pictures of Joyce in a suit and in a black evening gown.

***The Offenbach aria is another of those intriguing matters that will become moot on a CD, where it’s easier to drop a number into the program, or to build around it. A recording just moves the listener right into the next aria, whatever it happens to be.

1 comment:

gaulimauli said...

A meticulous review! You don't do this for a living, per chance? Damn it, she is good! Very few divas can move me like she does.It's astonishing all that success hasn't gone to her head, triumphalism is not in her vocabulary. But, look at the last picture: Can you imagine she cut off those lovely locks?! Sacrilege!
Best regards