My deep affection for mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is one of this blog's most open secrets. I wasn't sure, however, what to expect of her voice in the baroque arias and scenes which form the material of her newest CD and her current recital tour. In the event, the anxieties with which I came to Carnegie Hall were quieted and my hopes exceeded. The gimmick of the title was not permitted to control DiDonato's portrayals of the mythical queens, princesses, and empresses as distinct individuals in clearly delineated emotional situations. DiDonato varied her technique and her characterization to a degree that surprised me, showing the meaning of queenship to be both personal and situational. Her control of phrasing was good, and the musical repetitions were made meaningful with varied color as well as ornamentation. Il Complesso Barocco complemented DiDonato in amazing collaborative music making. Their performance--thrilling, sophisticated, engaging--might have stolen the show from a less accomplished or less gifted artist. With DiDonato, they offered confirmation that the best way to present material to an audience likely to be unfamiliar with it is with daring excellence.
The second half of the recital was launched with a contrast between two Cleopatras. Both Hasse and Handel show the Egyptian monarch confronting near-certain defeat, but the former's "Morte, col fiero aspetto" shows the queen as warrior, Handel's "Piangerò la sorte mia" a queen far nearer to resignation. (Where are the scholarly articles on the (gender) politics of portrayals of Cleopatra in baroque opera? All citations gratefully accepted.) DiDonato handled the dramatic shifts of both with sensitivity and decision; I don't think there was a static emotional state all afternoon. The intensity with which DiDonato poured herself into Iphigenia's lament ("Madre diletta," Porta) had me teary: from a childlike need for reassurance to an infinitely dignified, tragically wise resignation, DiDonato didn't strike a false note... and the lilting, lamenting voices of the instrumentalists were a perfect complement. The Handel passacaglia and Scarlatti sinfonia which Il Complesso Barocco gave in the second half were a delight. The officially final offering of the afternoon was the pyrotechnic, exultant "Brilla nell' alma un non inteso ancor" from Handel's Alessandro, sung by DiDonato with an exuberance which almost seemed to belie the intricacy of the amorous queen's coloratura runs.
The Carnegie Hall audience had been on its best behavior all afternoon, expressing delight in applause that, for all its vigor, was never premature, and maintaining an admirably complete silence when not shouting and clapping. This passionate warmth was reciprocated by DiDonato, and rewarded generously with three encores. I would have been sorry indeed to miss Kaiser's exquisitely poignant lament, "Lasciami piangere," and the wrath of Berenice (Orlandini's?) was a treat as well. "It wouldn't be right not to leave you with some scorn and blood!" was DiDonato's comment. So vociferous was the continuing applause (with shouts and whistles and cries of pleasure) that the singer and instrumentalists went into conference and gave a reprise of the first dazzling stanza of "Brilla nell'alma." One of the great delights of the recital was that the audience's joy seemed to be shared by that of the artists. I regret not knowing the attribution of the photograph of DiDonato at the head of this post, as I love it: it is unmistakably the portrait of a diva, but the image gains its significance from the fact that this is a diva eagerly pushing back the curtain separating us from hidden treasures; she is the guide to the palace of wonders, not its centerpiece.