Joyce DiDonato, Wigmore Hall

Rapturous applause greeted her
entrance, and the audience’s fervent delight increased with every step of
this journey through the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Italian romance.
Tracing a path from the late Renaissance to the turn of the twentieth century,
DiDonato clearly enjoyed herself, and the programme was certainly both eclectic
and generous.

DiDonato did not give herself the easiest of openings, and did not wholly
pull it off. Despite her careful self-restraint, and deliberate attention to
breathing and phrasing, ultimately her voice is simply too large — its
colours too overt, its textures too rich — for the subtle ambiguities and
delicate sensibility of the miniatures from the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries which she selected from the Arie antiche, a collection
gathered and edited by Alessandro.Parisotti in the late-nineteenth century.
Teasing madrigalisms — the ‘playful breeze’ or ‘the
sound of the waves’ — seemed somewhat mannered and a little
heavy-handed, as DiDonato worked too hard to conjure an air of simplicity. The
Italian texts were enunciated with a naturalness and ease, particularly in
Raffaello Rontani’s ‘Or ch’io non sequo pi˘’ (‘No
longer will I follow you’), but — despite some mischievous
rubato in the well-known ‘Se tu m’ami’ (‘If
you love me’, Parisotti, attributed Pergolesi) — the necessary
light-heartedness of spirit was not fully achieved.

Most successful was Caccini’s startlingly beautiful ‘Amarilli
mia bella’ (‘Amaryllis, my love one’). Here DiDonato
experimented with an understated, pure tone, her vibrato-less sound enlivened
by thrilling ornaments — delayed appoggiaturas and tremulous, tense
trills — while the piano sought to emulate the shudders and tremors of a
Renaissance continuo. Indeed, the French pianist, David Zobel, was a thoughtful
and imaginative accompanist throughout this sequence, whipping up the energy in
the opening ‘Danza, danza fanciulla gentile’ (‘Dance, dance,
young girl’) by Francesco Durante, deftly establishing the carefree world
of the opera buffa in Paisiello’s ‘Nel cor pi˘ non mi
sento’ (‘Why eels my heart’). DiDonato’s spirit of fun
and her ability to slip from one persona to another were apparent in this song,
a Cherubino-esque faux innocence characterising her interpretation of
‘the fire of youth divine’ — and fittingly so, as the page
himself was to make an appearance later in the evening.

Whatever one’s misgivings, this was however an intriguing sequence,
one which balanced the renowned with the unfamiliar, and which endeavoured to
offer a fresh reading of the former and to make a convincing case for the
latter. The four Italian ariettas by Beethoven which followed were perhaps less
engaging, written during the young composer’s studies with Salieri, when
he learned from the master how to set the texts of the doyen of opera
, Metastasio. Not quite ‘student exercises’ —
‘L’Amante impaziente’ (‘The Impatient Lover’),
for example, appeared in two guises, one frivolous, the other pathetic —
these songs lack genuine depth. Nevertheless, their simplicity of form and
style did allow the unity between singer and accompanist to shine: unisons and
echoes were effortlessly coordinated and intertwined in ‘Hoffnung (Dimmi
ben mio)’(‘Hope (say, my love, you love me)’) and the more
melancholy, pianissimo rendering of the lover’s impatience; a
graceful, shared lyricism shaped ‘La partenza’ (‘The
departure’). Throughout, Zobel sought to characterise and dramatise, his
‘scotch-snap’ heartbeat pulsing through ‘T’intendo, si,
mio cor’ (‘My heart I hear you well’) and a tumult of
arpeggio triplets conveying the buffoon-like impetuosity of the desperate

The first half of the recital closed with DiDonato’s signature Rossini
– the ‘Willow Song’ from Otello, with obbligato harp performed by
Lucy Wakeford. DiDonato’s relaxed demeanour was revealed when, just as
she drew breath, a mobile ‘phone interrupted proceedings:
“It’s Otello,” she quipped, “Tell him it’s not
true.” Unfazed and undistracted, the purity and transcendence of her
performance was spell-binding. Eager to make the most of her harpist’s
presence, DiDonato offered an unscheduled encore before the interval —
the heavenly prayer, ‘Guisto Ciel’, from Rossini’s Maometto
. The tranquility and sweetness conjured by singer and instrumentalist
was truly unearthly; which did, however, raise the question of why DiDonato did
not explore the potential of the harp’s sonorities in the opening Arie

The second half of the recital ranged once more over favourite pastures and
new terrain, as DiDonato convincingly made the case for a reconsideration and
re-evaluation of nineteenth-century Italian art song. The melodic arcs and
yearning cadences of Puccini, the rich harmonic palette of Richard Strauss, the
shimmering textures of Debussy … all echo through the liriche da
of Francesco Santoliquido. His ‘I Canti della Sera’ are
operatic miniatures, scaling emotional peaks and troughs, and perfectly suited
to DiDonato’s innate musical and dramatic expansiveness. ‘Tristezza
crepuscolare’ (‘Twilight sadness’) allowed the mezzo to
reveal the dark opulence of her lower register, as she effectively exploited
the textual repetitions to build urgency and passion. Songs by Ildebrando
Pizetti, Enrico Toselli, Stefano Donaudy and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
followed. DiDonato delighted in indulging her feeling for dramatic contrasts: a
silky velvet hue evoked the loneliness of the lover who waits in vain at the
close of Pizetti’s ‘Oscuro le ciel’ (‘The sky is
dark’), while an effervescent impishness characterised Tedesco’s

The final group of four songs imported the strains of Spain, France and
Arabia to Italian shores. In Barbara Guiranna’s eerie ‘Canto
arabo’ (‘Arab Song’), DiDonato relished the angular slips and
slides, floating dreamily between the pitches of the ‘off-key’
scales; while in Arturo Buzzi-Peccia’s ‘Lolita’ (popularised
by Caruso) and Vincenzo Di Chiara’s ‘La Spagnola’, her voice
lushly over-spilled: singer, actress, communicator — her warmth, joy and
exuberance was exhilarating,

Despite the heights already reached during the evening, two encores served
merely to show how much more there is in DiDonato’s arsenal. A cheeky
‘Voi che sapete’ brought Mozart’s insouciant page instantly
to life; last came ‘Tanti affetti’ from Rossini’s La
Donna del Lago
. Oddly, it was as if for the first time in this stunning
recital we were permitted a glimpse of the full range of DiDonato’s vocal
capabilities, the expanse of her tessitura, at both ends, the sparkle and
prowess of her coloratura. A triumphant end which left the ecstatic audience
eager for more.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Joyce DiDonato [Photo by Sheila Rock courtesy of IMG Artists]
product_title=Joyce DiDonato: Three Centuries of Italian Love Songs
product_by=Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; David Zobel, piano; Lucy Wakeford, harp.
product_id=Above: Joyce DiDonato [Photo by Sheila Rock courtesy of IMG Artists]