Cinq Mélodies de Venise, Op.58
Songs of Venice
La regata veneziana
La Ceneretola Nacqui allaffanno … Non più mesta
Giulio Cesare Cara speme
Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano) & Julius Drake (piano)
Recorded on 16 January 2006 in the Wigmore Hall, London
Reviewed by: John T. Hughes
Reviewed: October 2006
CD No: WIGMORE HALL LIVE
Duration: 67 minutes
The theme of this recital is Venice. One might expect Rossini’s boat race, even the Fauré pieces, but songs by Michael Head are infrequently encountered in recitals, whether they refer to Venice, the road to Bethlehem or Wapping Old Stairs, and the six items that comprise Hahn’s “Venezia” are not often heard. For this balancing of the known with the unhackneyed, Joyce DiDonato and Julius Drake must be congratulated, then given more approbation for their performance.
The first of the Head threesome is ‘The Gondolier’, a song in languorous mood: calm, drifting until the gondolier cries “Ohé”, which echoes from the looming walls. DiDonato slightly withdraws her tone on each call, disturbing the preceding gentleness of her phrasing: very effective. More dramatic is the last song, ‘Rain Storm’, in which Venice lies under a grey pall, as it will look when summer and visitors have left and winter threatens floods. Much of this song lies in the lower part of the voice, which contrasts markedly with DiDonato’s free upper notes. (The songs were written for Janet Baker, who gave the first performance, in the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1977.)
DiDonato and Drake actually begin with the Rossini regatta trio, in which Anzoleta encourages her lover Momolo to win the race, which he does, of course, before being smothered by her kisses. Again DiDonato presents contrast: Anzoleta before, during and after the race.
Fauré’s Verlaine settings are generally calm affairs, especially ‘En sourdine’, with DiDonato following a smooth contour against the busier piano line: elegance from both singer and pianist. They catch too the more overt emotion of ‘Green’ and shape ‘A Clymène’ sensitively as the quiet opening yields to a fuller outpouring before the song is gradually refined to a thread. ‘C’est l’extase’, with the pianist again playing far more notes than the vocalist sings, closes this short cycle. Both artists perform with taste and feeling: nothing overdone but nothing undone.
Ten years after the Fauré set came Hahn’s six songs in Venetian dialect. The intimacy of ‘La barcheta’ draws attractive, quiet singing matched by subtle, restrained playing from Drake. This is delightful. The following ‘L’avertimento’ gives DiDonato the chance to open out more, with her tone firm and strong. We share with her and Drake the fun of ‘Che pecà’ (What a shame), as the pianist dances through the lilting accompaniment and the singer rings the changes on her vocal colouring, with a humorously raucous touch at the end of each stanza.
Two encores are included, neither concerning Venice. ‘Cara speme’, a lovely aria for Sesto from “Giulio Cesare”, receives a beautifully sculpted, deeply felt interpretation, to remind us what a fine singer of Handel Joyce DiDonato is. Then it’s foot-tapping time as the duo end with Cenerentola’s final rondo. Note the delicious trills in the recitative, the easy surmounting of the ornate scales, the flexibility in rapid passages and the focus and beauty of the tone.
This fine recital, well recorded (and with a booklet that contains all the texts), is most welcome, for both DiDonato and Drake are in good form.