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DiDonato Scores Again–A Perfect, Timely Recital

Classics Today
by Robert Levine
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In the notes accompanying this spectacular CD, mezzo Joyce DiDonato asks, “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?” She goes for answers–and gets them–from a baritone who was a Freedom Combat Victim, as well as from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a prisoner in Sing Sing, an 8-year old refugee, Alfred Brendel, Judi Dench, and many more. DiDonato manages not to sound holier-than-thou in this introduction, and a discussion of Baroque opera and how it tended to be a battlefield between good and evil follows. Examples are “When I am laid in earth” for the grief of war, and Cleopatra’s “Da tempeste…” showing the Queen exulting in the possibility of peace …

if I had to compare, I’d say she’s on a par with Janet Baker. Another thing she has in common with Dame Janet are the various degrees of piano/pianissimo she can render, at every vocal height or depth, with or without vibrato, and always as a reading off the text and in the most musical of ways. Of course she shows off–you can only listen agape to the maniacal pinpoint staccatos up and down the staff, and to the superb trills in mid-line in Jommelli’s “Per che di giubilo”, every one of them right on, rhythmically flawless and an expression of sheer joy.

That type of virtuosity aside–and it by no means should be put aside–perhaps the most staggering moments on this CD are two in the war section: Dido’s Lament and the following “Lascia ch’io pianga”. Here are 10 minutes of the most beautiful and sensitive–and emotionally very different–expressions of sadness on disc. Yes, the feelings are in the music and we’ve all heard both selections gorgeously sung, but here DiDonato’s coloristic abilities make each character’s anguish utterly real. Dido dies in front of us.

The CD’s opening track, “Scenes of horror, scenes of woe”, might be performed by another singer–a Cassandra type of revulsion and terror are brought to the fore through chest voice and fierce fortes. Aggrippina’s “Pensieri” might not seem to be in place here, but her plotting is warlike, and you have only to hear the opening, straight-toned, vibratoless note to realize the cruelty and ambition. (Il Pomo d’Oro’s oboist should be commended here as well!)

Even were there no “programme” per se, this would be a worthy, in fact stunning achievement. Maxim Emelyanychev leads Il Pomo d’Oro with verve, compassion, and tone that ranges from vicious to caressing depending on the situation. And the last two tracks–Penelope’s quiet joy near the close of Monteverdi’s Ulisse, and Cleopatra’s “Da tempeste” leave us elated. Just buy this.

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There will always be more freedom to acquire and more truth to uncover.

~ Joyce DiDonato