Joyce DiDonato & David Zobel [Opening concert of Wigmore Hall’s 2008-09 Season]

Arsilda, regina di Ponto – Col piacer della mia fede
Il Giustino – Vedrò con mio diletto
Il Farnace – Da quell ferro che ha svenato
Hébé, Op.2/6; Sérénade, Op.13/2; Le colabri, Op.2/7; Les papillons, Op.2/3
Poema en forma de canciones, Op.19
Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson [selections]
Lady be Good – The man I love
By Strauss

Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano) & David Zobel (piano)

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 6 September, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Joyce DiDonato. Photograph: Anna BloomThe new season at Wigmore Hall got off to a glittering start with this flamboyant, if not wholly successful, recital by American mezzo Joyce DiDonato.

Most impressive was the well-chosen group of three complimentary Vivaldi opera arias. DiDonato appeared in her element here: fluent, relaxed and commanding. Her rich, superbly-integrated voice dispatched the brilliant runs of ‘Col piacer mia fede’ with supreme evenness and terrific flare; the soulful expression of the plaintive ‘Vedrò con mio diletto’ showed off her creamiest tones and masterful control of long melodic line. ‘Da quel ferro che ha svenato’ – an intense, vindictive power-aria – was infused with passion and drama, the virtuosity beautifully seamless.

These mesmerising performances transcended the unidiomatic piano accompaniment – although they made me hanker for an opportunity to hear DiDonato given full rein in the arias’ proper context. DiDonato clearly has immense talent for early opera: few, if any, of her peers can rival her tonal depth, fluidity and dazzling power.

After such captivating heights, the rest of the programme was something of an anti-climax. The introverted selection of four Chausson songs was coolly atmospheric, but DiDonato seemed far less secure – both in vocal tone and affinity for the idiom. She succeeded in capturing Chausson’s sense of laid-back intimacy, aided by David Zobel’s sensitively poised accompaniment; but coming off the support left her voice exposed, revealing a thin upper register. Why do so many singers feel they need to use completely different techniques for concert-hall songs and opera?

DiDonato appeared even less at ease in the more extrovert surroundings of Turina’s five-movement “Poema en forma de canciones”. Her pronunciation was admirable, but there was not enough charisma or Spanish passion to bring out the music’s vibrant colour and her sustained high notes sounded distinctly uncomfortable.

David ZobelDiDonato returned to surer ground in the all-American second half, beginning with eight of Copland’s twelve Emily Dickinson settings. She made the most of the emotional range of the poems, bringing an engaging animation to ‘There came a wind like a bugle’, a sweet sincerity to ‘Why do they shut me out of Heaven?’ and delightful characterisation to the whimsy of ‘Dear March, come in!’. ‘Sleep is supposed to be’ built steadily to a powerfully moving and vocally full-bodied climax. But DiDonato’s best efforts were not enough to convince that Copland’s music maintained consistent substance.

A couple of Gershwin numbers rounded off the programme, DiDonato slipping effortlessly into their well-worn skin and delivering with natural grace and style. Her cutesy presentation style to the well-heeled Wigmore audience tried a little too hard to please, coming over as slightly awkward; but there was genuine comedy in the final song “By Strauss” – with clever updates including a reference to the overexposure of Gershwin on phone ring-tones. The song is a paean to the waltzes of Johann Strauss, so there was great hilarity when Zobel repeatedly slipped in musical quotations from “Der Rosenkavalier” and other music by Richard Strauss.

The first of three encores gave us the real thing: a full-throttled rendition of the Composer’s aria from “Ariadne auf Naxos” which rather bemused in such an extraordinarily disjointed context. A warmly expressive ‘Ombra mai fu’ (from Handel’s “Xerxes”) reminded of DiDonato’s real strength.

Finally, after further expressions of gratitude and cringingly informing us that she was “just a little girl from Kansas following her dreams”, she ended with an (as tastefully sung as possible) performance of the treacly ballad ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ from “The Wizard of Oz”.

A not unsuccessful recital, then; but a very mixed affair that highlighted DiDonato’s weaknesses as well as her matchless skill for baroque opera.

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