The Deepest Desire

So writes Joyce DiDonato in her
personal introduction to The Deepest Desire, a title that names the
theme of the recital as she sees it. I also see in her allusion to
“stamping a select few songs with my voice” a secondary theme of
personal identity that resonates throughout the songs as well.

The five songs by Leonard Bernstein that energetically open the recital
include Two Love Songs, written in 1960, and three songs from
Songfest, a project setting texts by a variety of American poets
that was originally a commission for the Bicentenniel celebration in 1976 but
was not completed in time. According to Bernstein, even when the commission
was withdrawn, he completed the project, which had taken on great meaning to
him as a way, in Bernstein’s words, to “reflect the experience of
the American artist.” DiDonato sees in Bernstein’s life story a
“torment” resulting from his desire to be recognized as a serious
composer, and in the songs that she has chosen a “haunting desire for
something unreachable.” Indeed, the Two Love Songs set Rilke
poems in which love’s desire is so strong as to erase the boundaries of
identity. In the first of the Songfest songs, “Music I heard
with you” the intense closeness is only remembered after the affair has
ended, and next, in “What lips my lips have kissed,” a succession
of past loves have been forgotten individually, but live on in the
poet’s sense of having been enlarged by past love. This set ends with
“A Julia de Burgos,” a setting of a Spanish-language poem by the
Puerto Rican poet of that name to what one might call her social self. In
pianist David Zobel’s energetic presentation of the rhythmic
accompaniment we hear the galloping “runaway Rosinante” metaphor
for the artist’s inner fire.

The best-known repertoire in the recital is Aaron Copland’s
Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. While “desire” may not
be the first theme that comes to mind when thinking of this poet, DiDonato is
correct in seeing in her poetry a desire for answers, and I would
specifically point to the poet’s desire to find her place in the
cosmos, her identity as a saint, sinner, or simply a seeker within the
Calvinist world-view that surrounded her. DiDonato characterizes the music of
Copland’s Dickinson settings as “sometimes stark, sometimes
assaulting,” and she can certainly further these effects with her
voice, although her tone is also quite beautiful in the gentler moments of
“Nature, the gentlest mother”, “The World Feels
Dusty”, “Heart we will forget him”, and the final note of
“The Chariot”, in which the speaker rides into eternity with her
gentleman caller Death.

The Deepest Desire is the title of the closing set of songs,
settings by Jake Heggie of texts he requested from Sister Helen PrÈjean (the
model for the character of Sister Helen in Heggie’s opera Dead Man
), describing the source of her spirituality in “the
deepest desire of her heart”. Here the piano and voice are joined by
the flute of Frances Shelly, which has a lengthy solo at the opening,
reminding me of the flute solo I heard at the beginning of a Whirling Dervish
ceremony in Turkey, where the improvisation of the flute represented the
soul’s desire for the ultimate. This ushers in a Prelude followed by
“Four Meditations on Love”, in which Sister Helen describes her
experience of love as “the pure energy of God” and how it led her
away from her original desire to “be with God in Heaven” and
instead to “loose yourself!” and work with all her being to
realize “the deepest desire,” that for justice on earth. The
songs, while not exceptionally melodic, are varied, expressive, and
listenable, particularly when presented by a singer as thoughtful,
communicative, and vocally endowed as DiDonato.

Indeed, there is another “deepest desire” present in this
recital, that of Joyce DiDonato to communicate. She has given a great deal of
thought to the texts, the music, and to her own relationship to them, and,
when she speaks of “stamping [them] with my voice” it is a voice
of considerable strength and range that she uses to produce a wide variety of
vocal colors, from meltingly beautiful to hard and edgy. While this tonal
variety brings the songs’ details into high relief, I personally found
the many color changes rather distracting in some places, detracting from the
clarity of the words in others. On the other hand, in the phrases of
“Extinguish my eyes” that are essentially vocalises on an
“oo” vowel, and in the playful nonsense syllables of the
Bernstein “Piccola Serenata” that acts as an encore “bonus
track”, her sound can be fascinating and ravishing. Overall, this is a
recital to hear when one is willing to be energized and challenged to think
by the music, rather than in the car on the way home from an intense meeting
(as I first tried it, quickly putting it aside for a time when I was better
able to receive it). Listeners desiring to hear DiDonato’s considerable
artistry in the service of an interesting but more relaxing set of songs will
be pleased to know that her Wigmore Hall recital of songs themed around the
city of Venice has also been released by the BBC this year (under the Wigmore
Hall Live imprint). In the Rossini, Michael Head, FaurÈ, and Hahn songs that
make up the program (as well as in the Handel and Rossini arias that act as
encores) we are treated to a very satisfying dose of the beautiful singing
that has justly earned her a position among the exciting young bel

I find it interesting that The Deepest Desire, a debut recital
exploring the theme of personal identity, begins with a set of songs written
for a mezzo-soprano of several generations ago, Jennie Tourel, and ends with
a set written for another mezzo who is still very active, Susan Graham, who
created the role of Sister Helen in the original production of Dead Man
, a role that DiDonato went on to perform with the New York City
Opera. In light of the intelligence, artistry, and sheer vocal talent that
she brings to these songs, I would not be surprised at all if her recitals in
the not-too-distant future include songs written for her as well.

Reflecting this disc’s production in France, where it won the
Diapason d’or de l’annÈe, the notes (both
DiDonato’s personal introduction, and the notes on the songs by
Benjamin Sosland) and artist biographies, as well as the texts of the songs,
are presented in both English and French (“A Julia de Burgos” is,
of course, also in Spanish).

Barbara Miller


image_description=The Deepest Desire
product_title=The Deepest Desire
product_by=Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano, Frances Shelly, flute, David Zobel, piano
product_id=Eloquentia EL 0504 [CD]