Thursday 7 February 2013

Vivid, involving and very modern - Joyce DiDonato's drama queens

Joyce Di Donato, Photo ©Josef Fischnaller
Joyce Di Donato, Photo ©Josef Fischnaller
Joyce DiDonato's Drama Queens show arrived in town. To a packed Barbican Hall last night (6 February 2013) she and Il Complesso Barocco performed a programme of baroque arias, based on the recent CD. There were CD's for sale and Ms DiDonato was of course signing them after the event, there was even an album of the printed music, which was rather a charming innovation. Though the idea of anyone being able to sing along with Ms DiDonato is far fetched. For the concert she wore a most amazing red dress by Vivienne Westwood Couture and looked every in the diva. Of course all the hoop-la would not work if it wasn't for the fact that DiDonato can sing these arias quite superbly. The rather varied audience were extremely enthusiastic about a programme of arias by Cesti, Monteverdi, Giacomelli, Orlandini, Hasse, Handel and Porta, arias that most of us have never had chance to hear in public and which make strong technical demands on the performer.

Most of the arias in the programme were written for the finest singers of their day. DiDonato finished with Handel's Brilla nell'alma from Alessandro which was written for the great Francesca Cuzzoni. Alessandro was the first opera that Handel wrote for the 'rival queens' with both Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordone in the cast, each with a carefully allocated group of arias showing of the singers best features. And what a dazzler Brilla nell'alma is; the character is happy and so shows this off with a series of amazing runs. The beauty of Di Donato's art is that she seems to be able to throw off the technical demands with apparent ease and use the music to get to the heart of the character.

Cuzzoni's rival, Faustina Bordone, eventually ended up marrying Handel's younger rival Johann Adolf Hasse and the two became one of the 18th century's musical power couples, based in Dresden. Earlier in Hasse's career he had been based in Naples where he wrote a serenata to celebrate a wedding, Antonio e Cleopatra, one of the singers was the great Farinelli. Rather strangely, to us, Farinelli took the role of Cleopatra! Cleopatra's aria Morte col fiero aspetto from the serenata was the one DiDonato opened the second half of the concert with. Again it showed off the singers amazing facility with passagework, which she combined brilliantly with a very commanding manner. Hasse was adept at writing tricky arias which showed singers off to their best advantage; he was the singers preferred composer, whereas Handel was too much inclined to write what he wanted rather than simply show the singer off.

In the simpler numbers, there was a danger of DiDonato doing too much. She is a very interventionist singer. Piangero from Handel's Giulio Cesare was beautiful and stunning, but I felt that the singer was constantly needing to 'do something' to phrases and I wanted to tell her to leave it alone and just sing. I felt similarly about Disprezzata regina from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea, admirably this was sung just with continuo accompaniment though the very strong bass line gave it a rather distinctive character.

DiDonato's is a very vivid but very stylised art. These arias were sung by great singers of the past and, if the anecdotes about Handel tell us anything, there seems to have been a tension between what the composer wanted and what the singer would do. Certainly here Di Donato re-makes the music in her own image, but does so quite brilliantly. And she takes her audience with her.

How to describe her art? Very vivid, intensely projected, technically quite superb, richly emoted, a flexible attitude to tempo and dynamics, highly stylised There are moments when she thins the voice right down in a very evocative manner, spinning long phrases, but in a way which is modern and not what the singers of the day would do. Despite the period performance trappings, DiDonato's are of the moment and not a re-creation of the past. They are rather like the amazing paniered red dress she wore (which had had two other incarnations sans paniers in the first half of the concert), a brilliant evocation of the past and a contemporary stunning piece.

By the way, did no-one tell the men of the orchestra that the pink socks that they were very visibly wearing clashed rather with the red of Di Donato's dress and distracted from it horribly?

The performance from Il Complesso Barocco directed by Dimitry Sinkovsky was similar. Like DiDonato, their performance was very stylised, often with an overly strong bass line, extremely crisp incisive playing with what I can only call gusts of dynamic. I doubt that it was in any way historically informed in terms of the style of playing, but on its own terms it was stunning and very involving. One further moan, the tuning. At the start of each half and at various points during the performance, we were treated to very extensive tuning on stage. Not all period bands to this, couldn't they find a way to at least do most of the tuning before they come on.

The orchestra played a sinfonia by Scarlatti, the Passacaglia from Handel's Radamisto and one of Vivaldi's violin concertos written for Pisendel, the violinist leader of the orchestra at Dresden. This latter gave Sinkovsky the chance to display a quite stunning talent, the solo part is fiendish (Pisendel was no mean violinist) and Sinkovsky played it brilliantly.

The reception was astounding, like Cecilia Bartoli, Joyce DiDonato can take the more obscure parts of this repertoire and take her audience with her because of the quality of the the performance. Not just the technique, but the way she uses it to really communicate with her audience. We were treated to three encores, two more from the Drama Queens CD, plus a repeat of the Da Capo of Handel's Brilla nell'alma from Alessandro. This left me thinking, isn't it about time that someone mounted a performance of this opera, with Bartoli and Di Donato as the rival queens, Faustina Bordone and Francesca Cuzzoni, perhaps with Andreas Scholl as Senesino. Now there's an idea!

My full review of the concert will appear in Opera Today (

Elsewhere on this blog:

1 comment:

  1. Just a point about orchestral tuning. Baroque strings go out of tune remarkably quickly and are particularly sensitive to atmospheric conditions. Like other orchestras, Il Complesso Barocco tuned on stage at the start of each half. They simply retuned as they thought necessary. I am always amazed that other baroque groups manage with less retuning - perhaps they adjust their intonation with their fingering as their instruments go out of tune.


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