The term ‘Galacticos’ has been much in vogue recently, referring to the exclusive group of highly skilled footballers who have dominated the professional game in Europe for the last fifteen years. Think Zidane, Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi. Listening to Joyce DiDonato’s latest recital and placing it in the context of her other themed recordings and stage appearances I could not avoid thinking that, were there such a club for classical singers, she would unarguably belong to it.
The term ‘Galactico’ carries connotations of prodigious skill, verging on the miraculous. This superstar label fits Joyce DiDonato equally. Faults are hard to find in her vocal technique, and she is a stage performer to rival any in world.
Her ascent to prominence has been phenomenal. She experienced discouragement early in her career, though crucially the realistic and sound advice of one teacher who identified a lack of physical support in her vocal method saved her. The tone itself, rock-solid and clear of any hint of unsteadiness, is a thing of beauty, capable of great expressiveness and adaptable to the emotional requirements of the music to hand.Consider her technical mastery of scales, trills, runs, legato phrasing, piano singing and the unusually wide range with which she has been endowed and it is no surprise that she has risen to the top. She has a fast, intense vibrato to add. With it she can pile on the emotional pressure and transcend technical virtuosity. In the most spectacular track on this issue she takes on the challenges of what may be Rossini’s most taxing finale, from Zelmira, written for the composer’s wife Isabella Colbran and premiered in Naples. She sang the role also for Rossini’s debut in Vienna. We know that Rossini left no note undecorated and DiDonato does not stint on the display of vocal trickery. The formal patterns which Rossini established – the double aria, the gran duetto, concerted finales – are there in Zelmira: the familiar procedures are present but with the difficulties enhanced. In particular, despite the demands of the opening section, the climactic cabaletta is much the most important part. This is an aria fit for the remarkable singer that DiDonato is.
Each of the three central composers associated with bel canto – Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti – are represented in this album, in some cases in familiar works, while three others are heard in works better known in the hands of other composers. Thus it is Mercadante’s Vestale that we hear, a male sleepwalker is included by Valentini and ‘O quante volte’ appears in its original guise in Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini. Sir Walter Scott’s Lucia di Lammermoor becomes Le nozze di Lammermoor in the hands of Michele Carafa. Carafa’s Lucy starts her vigil with an accompanied recitative ranging from almost inaudible melancholy to melodramatic self-pity. The harp to which she turns for consolation does little more than chug along but clarinet soloist and voice produce beautiful effects from the melodic material, up till the point when they bring the piece to what seems a premature end.
I find Maria Stuarda the least impressive of Donizetti’s ‘Tudor’ operas. Much repetition of a phrase in the final pages does little to support the weak prayer which ends the opera; some of the ensemble here is messy while flute and clarinet produce some disagreeable sounds when playing together. DiDonato makes the best of it, holding a G above the stave for eight bars. The aria from Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth addresses a textual problem. In itself it is a fairly conventional double aria but here accompanied by the instrument described in the score as the ‘armonico’ or ‘armonica’. The producer argues against the glass harmonica (pitched glasses activated by touch as used in the ‘Mad Scene’ from Lucia di Lammermoor in the HMV recording of 1970 with Beverley Sills) and plumps for the celesta. Mercadante’s La Vestale aria is written in a low tessitura and only in the concluding bars is the voice liberated to rise from the middle register.
Bellini was a great borrower from his own works and there are plenty of examples in I Capuleti e i Montecchi. One anomaly I have noticed: the musical language and general tone of the work which gives its name to the recital is unmistakably light-hearted: the jaunty tune on which it is based, the prevailing rhythms, the instrumentation, even the false ending. The chirpy downward phrases are surely intended to represent giggling. The singer leans twice on the word “moro” in mock exaggeration. Yet the text is about a character submitting herself to execution without hope for either pity or mercy and explicitly singing about it. The booklet notes should have explained this contradiction.
A disc full of bel canto music without respite and with endless tests of the vocal skills set by that school of music would not be to everyone’s taste. After nearly an hour of music written to formula, predictable in structure, limited in harmonic invention, I found myself longing for greater adventure. The answer lies not in any originality of dramatic invention; the characters and situations remain unchanged. Nor is it the recognised masters among these Italian composers who produce the stimulation which makes the last track a relief. The under-rated Pacini it is, in a scene lasting nearly fifteen minutes, who shows the enterprise to experiment with the harmony, to depart from the dominance of Rossini and avoid the obvious in structuring the piece.
Apart from a lapse mentioned, the playing of the Lyon Opera Orchestra is idiomatic and Riccardo Minasi’s direction committed. The balance of voice with orchestra is ideal and the sound vivid. Bel canto enthusiasts will welcome three premiere recordings and need no prompting to buy this feast of expert and wonderful singing.