Sensational singing wins out over campy theatrics in DiDonato’s “harmony” program

Sat Dec 10, 2016 at 3:16 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Joyce DiDonato performed "In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music" Friday night at the Harris Theater.
Joyce DiDonato performed “In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music” Friday night at the Harris Theater.

As audience members entered the Harris Theater Friday night for Joyce DiDonato’s show it was clear that this was not going to be your everyday vocal recital.

The celebrated mezzo-soprano, clad in a magnificent black gown, was already sitting at the back of a darkly lit stage. For more than twenty minutes as the audience filed in and found their seats, the singer sat unblinking and completely still, as did a reclining male dancer near the front of the stage. Clearly, this event was going to be an Important Artistic Statement.

That set the tone for the evening, one in which DiDonato’s stunning performance of Baroque arias won out over a presentation that veered from weird museum installation to surreal diva art.

In a long, meandering speech at the end of the evening, DiDonato explained that in the wake of the Paris terror attacks of 2015, her planned recording and tour project of a Baroque program didn’t seem important enough on its own terms. Noting that so much Baroque music has to do with armed hostilities or pastoral calm, she decided to turn the project into a broader movement and plea for world peace, titled, “In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music.”

No one can doubt DiDonato’s sincerity and admirable intentions. (She also indicated that the tension between darkness and light had some significance in her personal life as well.) Yet there was more than a whiff of self-referential pretentiousness about both the trappings and the presentation. The program book contains answers to her query, “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?” from several colleagues (Riccardo Muti, Alfred Brendel and Janet Baker) as well as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and outgoing Harris Theater president Michael Tiknis, among others. In an envelope given to all audience members (“A message to you, from Joyce”), DiDonato says she hopes the show “will inspire you to reflect on your own life to see if, perhaps, there exists a bit more space for Peace.” She encourages audience members to write a response to her question in the enclosed envelope and “become part of a simple yet mighty exhibition for Peace.” What if you just came to hear her sing?

A similar sense of grandiosity permeated the presentation, directed by Ralf Pleger, which was divided into two parts (“WAR” and “PEACE”) with arias and non-vocal items performed attacca with no break.

The staging, with distracting projections and strobe lights, attempts to provide some narrative connection for each of the evening’s sections with little success. A bare-chested male dancer (Manuel Palazzo, also credited as choreographer), cavorts about the singer, casting admiring glances at her and, later in his own solo, throwing rose petals around the stage. At one point singer, dancer and an androgynous female flute player indulge in an awkward pastoral pas de trois.

For all her acknowledged gifts of characterization in opera, DiDonato’s attempts to dramatize each half largely fell flat. In the Peace section, she merely grinned a lot and sashayed around the stage. Her War makeup and overwrought gestures verged on high camp, recalling the late days of Norma Desmond.

Never mind. Most people came to hear DiDonato sing, and on that front, she more than delivered the goods, with stellar vocal artistry that pushed the show’s sillier elements into the background.

The American mezzo-soprano’s technical arsenal is as complete and close to perfection as it gets. DiDonato is at the top of her game these days and one can go a lifetime without hearing these demanding Baroque arias thrown off with this kind of refulgent tone, seamless agility and immaculate technique.

From the tempestuous opener, “Scenes of horror, scenes of woe” from Handel’s Jeptha, DiDonato blazed through the virtuosic items with fiery dramatic conviction. In both familiar warlike showpieces from Handel’s Agrippina (“Pensieri, voi mi tormentate”) and less familiar arias (“Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro!” from Leonardo Leo’s Andromaca), she handled all the coloratura runs, roulades and vocal leaps with athletic vocal prowess.

Yet the singer also brought moving expression to the more intimate arias. Rarely will one hear Dido’s Lament sung with such emotional depth and rapt simplicity. Nor will one likely ever experience “Lascia ch’io pianga”(from Handel’s Rinaldo) sung with such beauty of tone or suffused with such melancholy depth.

In addition to showing himself a nimble player on the Baroque cornetto, conductor Maxim Emelyanychev drew consistently energized playing from Il Pomo d’Oro. In addition to alertly supporting their soloist, the chamber orchestra displayed tangy asperity with their period instruments yet blended together with a warmly ingratiating corporate sound in non-vocal items from De Cavalieri, Purcell, Gesualdo and Arvo Part. 

Joseph Jommelli’s “Par che di giublio” from Attilio Regolo was a suitable finale, the brilliant vocal fireworks thrown off in exuberant fashion. DiDonato closed the evening with a “hopeful” rendition of Richard Strauss’s “Morgen.”

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Sensational singing wins out over campy theatrics in DiDonato’s “harmony” program”

  1. Posted Dec 10, 2016 at 5:10 pm by matt black

    Agree 100% with this review. JDD is one of the world’s most amazing singers with superb technique and interpretation. The orchestra was in fine form and musically the night was exquisite.

    If only I had been able to shut my eyes through the whole affair. I was much less impressed with the distracting and pretentious stage business. Every projection distracted me from the vocalism. Not that I mind watching handsome men in skirts gyrate shirtless, but for me it is not the ideal accompaniment to music from oratorios and opera seria.

    I found JDD’s paean to music’s power to “bring together people of different cultures, different races, different geographical areas” somewhat absurd considering that the audience at the Harris on Friday night, like at most classical concerts, was approximately 90% white, 8% asian, and 2% other.

    I’m also unclear as to how listening to music written by conservative white males under authoritarian states is related to the problems we face in the world today. If you could use a time machine and interview the composers of these works on their social views (for instance, on the benefits of cultural diversity) I’m pretty certain that their answers would not be acceptable in polite company. And yet JDD is presenting this music as the keystone to understanding contemporary issues. Beyond the blindingly obvious level of “war = bad, peace = good,” I’m not sure what lesson I am meant to derive from this….

    Isn’t it enough for great art to be great art, presented without gimmicks and virtue-signaling commentary?

  2. Posted Dec 11, 2016 at 6:24 pm by Bobbie R.

    I strongly but respectfully disagree with both the the reviewer and Matt Black’s comments.

    Unfortunately, great singing is not enough to fill concert halls and opera houses, and certainly not in the case of a recital program that includes rare or unfamiliar works. Joyce DiDonato’s current tour is a bold and creative undertaking. Yet despite her stature and well-deserved celebrity status in the classical world, the Harris Theater needed to offer 40% discounts in order to fill the house.

    I applaud this wonderful artist and the producers for presenting a challenging and artistic program. I would gladly listen to Joyce sing a standard recital (or even the telephone book for that matter), without props or “distractions,” but I believe the choreography and visuals enhanced the production. Did the reviewer notice that the projections were displayed during the da capo sections? I thought this was a great visual complement to the vocal fireworks during the da capo section, when characters typically become mentally unhinged. Of course this emotional content is always exquisitely portrayed through the Joyce’s interpretations, but audiences unfamiliar with this repertory might not understand that. In this case, I believe that innovative stagecraft intensified the drama and engaged the audience.

    I am dismayed when bold artistic ventures, such as this one, are described by terms like “campy theatrics” and “gimmicks.” After all, these arias are out of context from a larger theatrical work; they not just musical pieces designed for the concert hall.

    Fortunately the opera world outside Chicago is more welcoming to innovation, exploration, and new productions. It is no surprise, then, that Ms. DiDonato’s tour is receiving critical acclaim and positive audience response in other cities.

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