Thursday, February 12, 2009

DiDonato's Fiery Furore

Few albums in recent times have I anticipated the arrival of more than Joyce DiDonato’s Furore – an album of Handel arias that should dispel the myth of baroque boredom for many. I’ve had to digest it before reviewing it, wanting to absorb its flavor, take a break and return to see how I felt on repeated hearings before just offering a rave. Having done so, here's the expected rave.

DiDonato is one of those artists who seem to have everything in the world going for her. A unique, sexy look (ever reminding me of the young Bette Midler), great sense of style (remember her Nancy Sinatra get-up as she hosted the Met's HD Orfeo offering.
From Teseo she offers Medea’s breathtaking yet oddly constructed “Dolce riposo” that, while a little quicker in tempo than I would have liked, manages still to convey the emotions of the title, the brisker tempo allowing for no singerly indulgences or unduly stretching the vocal line out of proportion. This offers a nice constrast a more rubato delivery of the interior recitative sections, returning to the da capo with a hushed intensity, embellishing the line with varying rates of vibrato and volume, the dispatch of perfect trills and a perfect Handelian line. As much as I love the virtuostic pieces (and boy do I), it is in these quieter, introspective numbers that Handel wows me every time and DiDonato knows exactly how to put these types of arias over.

Following the “Dolce riposo” comes one of those very virtuostic arias – the one, in fact, responsible for the title of this delightful disc.

Recently I’ve been involved in discussions about historical singers, e.g., Callas and Sutherland and singers capable of fully understanding the text, scratching deeper than its surface and working within the musical framework the composer has laid out, DiDonato makes abundantly clear she is perfectly in tune with this school. The voice is rich with color, like an accomplished jazz singer (and, I imagine, the great singers in Handel’s own time) she is unafraid to bend a note’s shape and pitch (while landing squarely on it – most of the time) vary the velocity of her vibrato – and when necessary, hold it back entirely. She will spread the vowels of a syllable almost to a level of vulgarity (listen to “Iris, hence away!”) that a more prim and proper singer wouldn’t dare imagine, yet in so doing, she infuses this very familiar music with an added frisson long missing from even the other outstanding interpretations we’ve heard over the years.

Her upper middle voice has a naturally rich, fruity quality which she also can color with skill – darkening it one bar and instantly lightening the sound to something resembling sunlight – all of which fits Handel’s music like the proverbial glove. I can think of no more perfect example of this than her work in the aria “Moriro ma vendicata” – the first piece in this remarkable recital which requires her to pull out all of the stops.

I’m asking for the moon here, but the only way I can think this album may have been improved is a pipe dream: Yet I’ll admit it freely here: Oh how I would have loved a “a multi-track recording of DiDonato singing both parts of the great Cornelia/Sesto duet.

I first fell in love with Miss Donato as Meg in the premiere performances (televised) of Adamo’s “Little Women.” I (and everyone else) recognized immediately this was a standout talent. It wasn’t long before Opera News did a feature on her and the candid, unconventionally pretty young mezzo sounded like one smart cookie. Two years later she took Paris by storm with her Rosina in Colline Serreau’s breathtaking “Barbiere” set (in of all places) Moorish Spain, revealing a young artist of supreme depth, innate comedic abilities, musical integrity, stage assuredness and genuine star quality. All of this is in abundance in this recording of Handelian masterpieces. All, you ask? Yes, all. Even the “stage” qualities come off in this recording. Rare is the artist who can sing a recital of arias, yet invoke the sense and spirit of the entire work she’s execerpting it from. DiDonato does this, evoking the personality of each character, distilling the essence of their entirety to miniature portraits that reveal each strength of character as well as each flaw. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson had this identical quality, but this is not to compare these two singers who in many other ways are as different as day from night.

Sorge nell ‘alma mia allows the singer her first genuine “I’m gonna tear the roof right off this place” moments of this recital – and it is, in a word, thrilling.

Another stand out gem, and one of my favorite mezzo arias, is There, in myrtle shades reclined. I’ve heard this aria sung many times and DiDonato (followed closely by von Otter) takes pride of place in melting my heart and causing me to swoon.

In her delivery of one of Handel’s most acclaimed arias, Ariodante’s “Scherza infida” DiDonato strikes as nearly a perfect balance between Handelian showmanship and introspective interpretation., as one is likely to hear. While the accompaniment by Christophe Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques is outstanding in every moment of this recital, it is, here, flawless – at complete oneness with the singer, its ebbs and tides, flowing through Handel’s music with such delicacy as to be positively gauzelike. Every moment here is one of exquisite beauty.

I cannot ignore what is perhaps a representation of this singer’s most remarkable interpretation to date, her Dejanira from Hercules. The speed of the coloratura, the hurling out of sound, the seeming abandonment of all good senses in her approach may (and has) put off some more gentle listeners, but if you can just relax and let go, DiDonato will, take you on a roller coaster journey of the heart and mind offering a frightening and breathtaking look into Dejanira’s madness. It is, to be sure, rather an odd way to end a recital – but it is theatrical and thrilling and exactly the type of surprise we should be expecting from the delightful DiDonato.

Highly recommended. Make that VERY high recommended!

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