Wednesday 23 November 2016

A radical re-invention: Joyce DiDonato's War and Peace

Joyce DiDonato, Manuel Palazzo, Il Pomo Doro - In War & Peace - Barbican - Photo credit is Mark Allan/Barbican
Joyce DiDonato, Manuel Palazzo, Il Pomo Doro - In War & Peace - Barbican - Photo credit is Mark Allan/Barbican
Handel, Leo, Cavalieri, Purcell, Gesualdo, Arvo Pärt, Jommelli; Joyce DiDonato, Il Pomo d'Oro, Maxim Emelyanychev; Barbican Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 22 2016
Star rating: 4.5

A dramatic concert staging of baroque arias in a programme designed to provoke and make you think

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato's latest project In War and Peace is a highly personal one. It involves the inevitable CD and attendant concert tour, and we caught her performance at the Barbican on Wednesday 22 November 2016. Yet the event was more than just a concert, it was theatrical event which DiDonato intended to make us think, to address the question 'In the midst of chaos, how do we find peace' Joyce DiDonato, accompanied by Il Pomo d'Oro directed from the harpsichord by Maxim Emelyanychev, sang arias from Handel's Jephtha, Agrippina, Rinaldo, Susanna and Giulio Cesare, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and The Indian Queen, plus arias from Leo's Andromaca, and Jommelli's Attilio Regolo, and the orchestra played music by Gesualdo and Arvo Pärt.

Joyce DiDonato, Il Pomo Doro - In War & Peace - Barbican - Photo credit is Mark Allan/Barbican
Joyce DiDonato, Il Pomo Doro - Photo credit is Mark Allan/Barbican
Directed by Ralf Pleger with lighting by Henning Blum and video by Yousef Iskandar, this was a dramatic event rather than a simple concert, and DiDonato was joined by dancer/choreographer Manuel Palazzo, and the striking costumes were by Vivienne Westwood. Joyce DiDonato was on stage throughout, when the audience entered she was sitting on a raised podium towards the rear of the stage and retired there at various points. Singing the whole programme from memory, she used movement, lighting, video, gesture and choreography to bring out the drama in the individual arias. There were instrumental moments too, when Manuel Palazzo's dancing came to the fore.

The first half was themed around war and the second around peace. We opened with Storge's Scenes of horror, scenes of woe from Handel's Jephtha, a vivid description of war and chaos. We don't usually hear DiDonato in this type of repertoire, and her lower register lacks the amplitude of classic mezzo-sopranos/contraltos who sing this repertoire, but she countered this with an acute ear for Handel's verbal drama and a real wiry strength which made a powerful combination. This was followed by the aria Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro from Leonardo Leo's Andromaca (1742) a powerful solo for the captured Andromaca who dares Pirro to kill her son, resulting in a vivid and remarkable scene. This is certainly an opera I would love to come across.

Next came an instrumental movement, the sinfonia from Emilio Cavalieri's Rapresentatione di anime e di corpo (1600) with Maxim Emelyanychev playing the cornet. Purcell's Chaconne in G minor, led into Dido's lament, a dramatic and striking performance at quite a stately tempo. DiDiDonato was was again verbally acute, though I found her approach a little to self-consciously artful. I would have preferred greater simplicity in approach and phrasing, but her dramatic performance undoubtedly chimed in with the general tenor of the drama. It was now clear that the war and chaos represented internal conflict as well as actual, and in the series of arias DiDonato gave us variety of personal responses to interior and exterior stress.

Joyce DiDonato, Il Pomo Doro - In War & Peace - Barbican - Photo credit is Mark Allan/Barbican
Joyce DiDonato, Il Pomo Doro - Photo credit is Mark Allan/Barbican
There was further interior conflict, this time self induced, as DiDonato sang Agrippina's Pensieri, voi mi tormentate, from Handel's Agrippina, a remarkable scene in which Agrippina's obsessive dwelling on her problems is reflected in Handel's fluid approach to the structure of the music, and here DiDonato showed quite what a remarkable range of colours she has in her voice. After an instrumental version of Gesualdo's motet Tristis est anima mea, we heard Lascia ch'io pianga from Handel's Rinaldo (1711). The aria was taken at a remarkably slow tempo, but DiDonato really made it work, creating a strong concentrated intensity.

For the second half we moved from War to Peace, with DiDonato wearing a different, equally striking dress. Reading her introductory essay in the programme book after the event (it wasn't possible before the concert because lighting levels were too low) it is clear that DiDonato wanted us to get a clear sense of choosing the way of peace, and finding inner calm within chaos. We started with They that tell us you mighty powers from Purcell's The Indian Queen in which the singer says that love is so powerful a blessing it can transform the cruellest of pains to joy, set by Purcell to some of his most elegant music.

Then we turned to nature for Susanna's Crystal streams in murmurs flowing from Handel's Susanna, sung vibrantly yet with deceptive simplicity. Next came a more upbeat response, the explosion of joy after extreme stress that is Cleopatra's Da tempeste from Handel's Giulio Cesare sung in a strong, vibrant manner with vigour and character, clearly DiDonato's Cleopatra is a strong-minded individual.

The instrumental Da pacem, Domine by Arvo Pärt, originally a choral piece written in response to the 2004 Madrid bombings, it was a moment of calm, danced by Manuel Palazzo. Then we heard Augelletti, che cantate, Almirena's aria singing to the birds from Handel's Rinaldo, with the solo descant recorder interacting charmingly with Palazzo. Finally musical elation, Attilia's aria of joy on the release of her father, from Niccolo Jommelli's Attilio Regolo (1753) brought the evening to a brilliant close.
Joyce DiDonato, Il Pomo Doro - In War & Peace - Barbican - Photo credit is Mark Allan/Barbican
Joyce DiDonato, Il Pomo Doro - In War & Peace - Barbican - Photo credit is Mark Allan/Barbican
Throughout Joyce DiDonato was superbly partnered and supported by Maxim Emelyanychev. They played throughout with strong, vibrant tone, matching Joyce DiDonato's dramatic interpretations, yet also seemed to make themselves part of the drama. Whatever you thought about the dramatic presentation, there is no doubt that the evening pushed boundaries and challenged the conventional.

I am sure that DiDonato's message would have told, even if she had stood there and simply sung, but she is such a vivid performer that by creating the dramatic structure she added extra layers of drama and meaning. Whether this improved the music, I am not sure, but the event was stunningly sui generis. But you have to admire DiDonato for the way that she is always seeking something new, and rather than presenting us with a radical re-invention of her repertoire moving into pastures new, she gave us a radical re-invention of the baroque concert.

Of course, this wasn't the end. We had two encores, the first baroque and the second something of a surprise. After a speech in which Joyce DiDonato explained the origins of the programme and talked about pushing boundaries, she gave us something which would keep the light shining, Richard Strauss's Morgen sung in a magical transcription for strings, and yes the solo violin did use vibrato!

Joyce DiDonato's In War & Peace CD is available from Amazon.

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