"Drama, depth and brilliance"
‘I’m a belligerent, proud, willing optimist,” says Joyce DiDonato, who is unwilling to do anything by halves. Conceived in response to last year’s Paris terrorist attacks, her latest project, In War and Peace, is at times a sombre exploration of “our brutal nature and our elevated humanity” that celebrates the harmonising potential of music and aims, not always successfully, to overturn the conventions of the classical concert.
With Il Pomo d’Oro under Maxim Emelyanychev, she performs a programme of baroque arias that examine the nature of conflict and reconciliation, while director Ralf Pleger deploys multimedia techniques, sometimes distractingly, to transform the concert hall into a theatrical space. Haze drifts above the instrumentalists. Coloured lights flicker and flash, and indistinct video images flow across walls. A dancer, Manuel Palazzo, sinewy and graceful, hovers at DiDonato’s side and performs wiry solos in front of the players.
There’s no doubting the depth of DiDonato’s commitment or the brilliance of her singing. Dressed in Vivienne Westwood gowns, she looks every bit the diva. She spins out the lines of slow Handel arias with exquisite finesse and tackles Jommelli’s exacting coloratura with tangible joy. She brings a fierce sense of drama to her characterisations of Leonardo Leo’s traumatised Andromaca and Handel’s manipulative Agrippina, determined to obtain political power for her monstrous son, Nero. The orchestral playing is by turns sensuous and stark: Anna Fusek’s staggering recorder obbligato in Augeletti, Che Cantate from Handel’s Rinaldo, nearly steals the show.
Author: Tim Ashley
"An entirely new way of thinking about the concert format"
Most singers give recitals, and very nice they are too. But there are some – Bartoli, Florez, Netrebko, Terfel – who really put on a show. Mezzo Joyce DiDonato might just be the queen of this select band, and between the projections, smoke, sound effects, costume changes, lighting design and a solo dancer, her latest project throws down the gauntlet to any singer who thinks it’s enough just to learn the music and turn up in a clean frock.
In War and Peace is a classical concept-album. Faced with a world of ever-escalating conflict and chaos, DiDonato turns to music, both to explain man’s darkest and most violent urges and to offer them consolation and resolution. Can music create peace? That’s the question asked here in a programme of two contrasting halves.
The answer remains uncertain, but if anyone can make it so by sheer force of will it would be DiDonato. You can’t fault her for effort. This is a singer who has crafted every aspect of this performance, from repertoire (largely Handel and Purcell, but also featuring rarities by Leo and Jommelli as well as a wonderfully anachronistic bit of Arvo Pärt) to the choreography and visual narrative of the performance. It’s a lot; you don’t come to a DiDonato recital for understatement, and at times the many elements competing for attention become overwhelming. But at best it’s an entirely new way of thinking about the concert format – a classical concert for the stadium generation.
If DiDonato were a lesser performer none of this would work, but even among so much distraction it’s the mezzo who holds our attention. “Scenes of horror, scenes of woe” from Jephtha makes an arresting opening, scuttling strings matched by the nervy progress of the voice, lurching between extremes of range and texture. It’s music made for a singing-actress like DiDonato, and she revels in it, drawing baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro and conductor Maxim Emelyanychev with her into this gorgeous, grotesque sound-world.
The coloratura numbers – Leo’s “Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro!”, Jommelli’s “Par che di giubilo”, Handel’s “Da tempeste” – surge and foam with minutely controlled passion. This isn’t spontaneous singing, but there’s a delight in hearing such careful vocal choreography, such meticulous shading and pacing. Just occasionally the voice betrays its master, blurting with too-vigorous vibrato or wavering when reduced to whitest purity – the product of too much crafting, too much control where others might release?
But it’s the slower arias that offer the greatest challenge here. The stillnesses, the absences in both Dido’s Lament and Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” are far more demanding than any amount of semiquaver runs, and DiDonato’s solution is bold. She keeps ornamentation to an absolute minimum and lets the music do the talking, allowing her voice to be a vessel rather than the focal point. With sensitive collaborators like Il Pomo d’Oro, virtuosi in their own right, it works brilliantly, and offers the necessary counterbalance to so much extrovert showmanship and excess.
This is a curious concert, a concept not everyone could pull off. Oddities, like string arrangements of Gesualdo’s “Tristis est anima mea” and Pärt’s “Da pacem, Domine” work surprisingly well, creating a flow of musical narrative that’s miles away from stand-and-deliver recitals with their regular punctuating applause. DiDonato forces her audience to swap musical bonbons for something emotionally and musically meatier – arcs of musical storytelling that draw these works together into something larger. Is it enough to change the world? Very probably not. But if it changes how we think about concert programming, then that’s no small achievement either.
Author: Alexandra Coghlan
Examining the role of music as a catalyst for social change.
The extraordinary power of music to create hope and support change inspired the audience at the Barbican on 22 November 2016.
Supported by the Pure Land Foundation in association with Bruno Wang Productions, the event took its theme from Grammy award-winning opera star Joyce DiDonato’s latest project, a CD and tour entitled ‘In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music’, which continues internationally until July 2017.
The album – a programme of baroque arias that examine the nature of conflict and reconciliation collated in response to last year’s Paris terrorist attacks – has received warm reviews, as did this “sensuous and stark” performance at the Barbican.
The superb Joyce DiDonato, dressed in sumptuous Vivienne Westwood gowns explores discord and harmony in times of war in her powerful interpretations of Baroque arias. In War and Peace is a classical concept-album. Faced with a world of ever-escalating conflict and chaos, DiDonato turns to music, both to explain man’s darkest and most violent urges and to offer them consolation and resolution. Can music create peace? That is the question asked here in a programme of two contrasting halves. Audience members were left cards from Ms DiDonato on their seats asking them to share exactly that on her project website: http://inwarandpeace.com/.
Ms DiDonato presents a completely new way of thinking about the concert format – a classical concert for the stadium generation: projections, smoke, sound effects, costume changes, lighting design and a solo dancer, Manuel Palazzo.
The sunlit voice and exuberant personality of mezzo Joyce DiDonato have made her a real favourite with London audiences, particularly those at the Barbican. Here she’s accompanied by Maxim Emelyanychev conducting the lively new Italian period instrument ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro; the ideal partners for this most spirited of singers.
Programme & Performers
Handel 'Scenes of horror, scenes of woe' from Jeptha
Leo 'Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro!' from Andromaca
De Cavalieri Sinfonia Rappresentatione di anima e di corpo
Purcell Chaconne in G minor
Purcell 'Dido’s Lament' from Dido and Aeneas
Handel 'Pensieri, voi mi tormentate' form Agrippina
Gesualdo 'Tristis est animam mea'
Handel 'Lascia ch’io pianga' from Rinaldo
Purcell 'They tell us that you mighty powers' from The Indian Queen
Handel 'Crystal streams in murmurs flowing' from Susanna
Handel 'Da tempeste il legno infranto' from Giulio Cesare
Arvo Pärt Da pacem, Domine
Handel 'Augelletti, che cantata' from Rinaldo
Jommelli 'Par che di Giubilo' from Attilio Regolo
Joyce DiDonato mezzo-soprano
Il Pomo d'Oro
Maxim Emelyanychev conductor
Manuel Palazzo dancer