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Joyce & Tony: Live at Wigmore Hall

“Joyce and Tony” they may be to Erato. To the rest of us they are mezzo Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera’s music director, moonlighting here as accompanist.

Their recital at Wigmore Hall a year ago was hugely enjoyable. In this live recording it sounds even better. Was DiDonato really so gripping in Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos, so lambently beautiful of tone in rare songs by Francesco Santoliquido?

Did the two of them seduce the audience so ravishingly in their all-American hits by Jerome Kern and others? What a sublime encore to hear it all again.”

Richard Fairman – Financial Times

“A few years ago, I basically stopped reviewing Joyce DiDonato. Some other critics have done the same. You find yourself saying “Great,” “Great,” “Not as great as usual, but still great,” “Great” . . .
The mezzo-soprano from Kansas is an extraordinary combination of voice, technique, head, and heart. I will not quite review her latest CD, but I will write about it a little. It’s called Joyce & Tony, Live at Wigmore Hall. Tony is Sir Antonio Pappano, the music director of the Royal Opera House. Wigmore Hall, or “the Wigmore Hall,” as Brits tend to say, is a hallowed venue in London. It’s especially prized for chamber music and recitals. DiDonato and Pappano performed there in September 2014 . . .

The new CD is actually two CDs—a little set. And CD 1 begins with Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos. Yes, before there was Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos, there was this cantata. I said I don’t review Joyce DiDonato anymore, but I’ll say a few words about her Arianna. It is lyrical, incisive, gutsy, and intelligent. This is not delicate Haydn, but rather dramatic, operatic Haydn.

DiDonato continues with a couple of Rossini numbers, including “La danza.” I don’t recall hearing a woman sing this before—mainly tenors—but Joyce has a right, and Rossini would love it, I feel.

We next have four songs by an Italian composer with a beautiful name: Francesco Santoliquido (1883-1971). These are the Canti della sera (“Songs of the Evening”), and they reflect a lingering Romanticism. They are lovely and kind. And DiDonato sings them just that way.

CD 1 ends with a Neapolitan song, or another one, I should probably say, given “La danza.” Also, Santoliquido was a Neapolitan . . . In any case, Joyce sings “Non ti scordar” consummately.
On the second CD, we have, in effect, a pops recital. (I can’t swear I coined the term, but I believe I did, and I’m taking credit for it regardless.) . . .

Joyce sings five songs by Jerome Kern (not in a row), including “Life upon the Wicked Stage,” from Show Boat. She sounds so American in this song. Of course, you’re supposed to.

One of William Bolcom’s most popular songs is here, namely “Amor.” Between Jackie (Marilyn Horne) and Joyce came Flicka—the American mezzo Frederica von Stade. She, too, sang “Amor,” and scored big with it. It’s an absolute charmer . . .

DiDonato sings three encores, the first of which is “All the Things You Are,” from a Kern-Hammerstein musical, but not Show Boat: Very Warm for May. DiDonato sings this song purely, radiating what I can only call goodness. She then turns to Irving Berlin, his “I Love a Piano.” In this song, Berlin talks about Paderewski, a great virtuoso of the time. But Joyce sings, “And with the pedal I love to meddle/ When Maestro Tony comes to play./ I’m so delighted that he decided/ To put that old baton away.” Pappano, for his part, interpolates some piano pieces into his accompaniment. He is very deft.

To close, Joyce sings “Over the Rainbow,” as she often does to say goodbye. Let me quote from a 2011 review of mine:

DiDonato sang three encores, the last of which was “Over the Rainbow,” that Harold Arlen masterpiece. Before she sang, DiDonato explained that her father didn’t care for Judy Garland, practically forbidding her in the home. Quipped DiDonato, “Who would have known that I would grow up to have so many Friends of Dorothy?” The crowd hooted in appreciation. Then DiDonato sang “Over the Rainbow” as purely and beautifully as possible. A recital by her is not merely a clinic in singing; it is a lifter-up.

On the two CDs of Joyce & Tony, we have two top musicians having fun, loving music, loving their own talent, and loving their collaboration. I’m so glad their time at Wigmore Hall was recorded.”

Jay Nordlinger – The New Criterion

“Opera season on disc rarely gets off to the spectacular start this one has. Of today’s most bankable stars in opera – the ones who sell out a performance no matter what they sing – one, who records plenty and indiscriminately, recently opened her house-diva-at-the-Met season there with the latest bulletin on the perilous state of her money-in-the-box voice. The other two, mezzo Joyce DiDonato and tenor Jonas Kaufmann, have rung the opera stock-market’s opening bell with revealing new recordings that entail the partnership of Antonio Pappano, whose day job is music director at London’s Royal Opera, Covent Garden.

He tickles the ivories for DiDonato on Joyce and Tony Live at Wigmore Hall (Erato), recorded there a year ago. Few singers ever have built careers as solidly on the basis of sheer discipline as has DiDonato, the “diva from Kansas” who reliably takes fans of bel canto to places that aren’t Kansas anymore. The first disc of her new recording celebrates its rewards with the recital-platform equivalents of that repertoire by way of Haydn’s cantata Adrianna a Naxos and Rossini songs, delivered with her alchemical mix of heart-rending feeling built on immaculate vocalism.

Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” conjures the DiDonato sorcery unforgettably . . .”

Tim Pfaff – The Bay Area Reporter

The ebullient personalities, instinctive musicianship and rock-solid technique of mezzo Joyce DiDonato and pianist Antonio Pappano are amply displayed on this two-CD set, recorded live in September 2014 — the second time the popular mezzo had been invited to open the season at the prestigious Wigmore Hall. She and Pappano are wonderfully matched, showing mastery of many musical styles with a range of emotions and a great sense of humor. . .

The first track is Haydn’s difficult cantata Arianna a Naxos (1790), consisting of two recitative sections, each of which is followed by extended arias . . . DiDonato supplies what the piece demands — pure tone and a full range of emotional power and vocal color. She is particularly effective in the final aria, “Ah! che morir vorrei,” moving the character from dignified acceptance to anguish and, finally, to outrage in the final presto moment, which provides vocal and histrionic thrills. DiDonato beautifully expresses anger and agitation without sobbing or in any other way distorting the vocal line.

Next are two Rossini songs, the limpid “Beltà crudele” and the familiar “La danza,” for which DiDonato’s remarkable vocal agility comes to the fore, accompanied by Pappano’s speed and precision on the piano. These are followed by the rarely heard four-song cycle by Francesco Santoliquido, I Canti della Sera (1908) . . . DiDonato sings it with Pucciniesque passion and sultry, generous tone, making the most of these songs of nature and lost love.

The first disc ends with perhaps the best moment of the recital — a deeply felt rendition of Ernesto de Curtis’s “Non ti scordar di me,” to which Pappano and DiDonato bring a palpable sense of longing and desire. The second disc contains a few too many jazzy American songs. The selections work best when the artists are allowed to unleash their wonderful senses of humor — Celius Dougherty’s “Love in the Dictionary” (literally setting the dictionary definitions of love to music), “Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” from Showboat, Bolcolm’s bouncy “Amor” and one of the encores, a delightful “I Love a Piano.” Also very affecting is the ditty “Lovely Jimmie,” by Havelock Nelson, a nod to DiDonato’s Irish roots, sung with simplicity and heart.

. . . many pleasures can be found on the second CD, especially when the artists have the courage to give their “takes” on familiar standards. There is great singing and playing in Kern’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” Rodgers’s “My Funny Valentine” and especially “Over the Rainbow,” all infused with a sound and style specific to the personalities of these artists. These songs have clearly been approached as if they were being sung for the first time, and the result is moving and refreshing . . . it’s so enjoyable that you’ll long for more.”

Henson Keys – Opera News

Last year’s recital by the dream duo of Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano works wonderfully as a double CD – arguably more effective than the concert itself. Haydn’s dramatic scena, Arianna a Naxos, comes into its own, the seriousness, virtuosity and beauty of the performance easier to enjoy in private contemplation. The songs of Francesco Santoliquido (1883-1971) sound silken rather than cloying. On CD2, the selection from big-name American songwriters – Stephen Foster, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers – never disappoints. All the Things You Are, I Love a Piano and Over the Rainbow act as touching encores. DiDonato’s immaculate voice relishes every vowel sound, Pappano responds with pianistic wit and idiomatic invention. Ad libs and applause are judiciously included. All a delight.”

Fiona Maddocks – The Guardian

An invitation to open the season at London’s Wigmore Hall is a big deal, so it’s perhaps a mark of the enormous affection felt for American mezzo Joyce DiDonato that she’s now been given the honour twice. This live recording of Italian repertoire and classics from the Great American Songbook was made on the second of those occasions in September 2014, when her pianist was Antonio Pappano (moonlighting from his regular job as music director of the Royal Opera House).

They’re both on astonishing form. This was clearly one of those evenings when the gods of live performance sprinkle their fairy dust over performers and audience alike: you can almost feel the spontaneity and theatrical electricity crackling from the CD. The duo begin with Haydn’s cantata Arianna a Naxos (1790), which offers a huge range of emotion – from blank hopelessness to spitting fury – in its depiction of the princess Ariadne, who has been abandoned by her lover Theseus. Joyce relishes the opportunities for drama, and takes quite a few vocal risks . . .

Joyce’s command of tonal variety is nowhere better exemplified in this bittersweet little waltz by Celius Dougherty called ‘Love in the Dictionary’; just when you think she’s delivering a comic number, she pulls the rug right out from under your feet in the gentlest possible way.

The focus of the evening is inevitably on Joyce, but Tony’s contribution cannot be overpraised: he sticks to the singer like the proverbial glue, but gets a chance to shine by adding a few extra passages to Irving Berlin’s ‘I Love a Piano’ (the ‘Gilhooly’ he shouts to from the keyboard is the Artistic Director of the Wigmore Hall). Pure delight.”

Warwick Thompson – Sinfini Music

“Culled from last September’s two recitals at the Wigmore Hall, this double-album explores both American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s European artistic homeland and her native land, through separate discs of cantatas and Great American Songbook classics, sensitively accompanied by Antonio Pappano’s thoughtful piano arrangements.

Understandably, the most testing piece opens the show, DiDonato capturing the huge emotional swings of Haydn’s “Arianna a Naxos” in an incandescent performance that threatens to overshadow the rest of the programme.

But a jaunty dash through Rossini’s “La Danza” helps shift gears for the second half, in which both she and Pappano offer light-spirited takes on Kern, Berlin and Arlen, before a yearning “Over the Rainbow” finds her, heels clicked, back in her native Kansas.”

Andy Gill – The Independent 

“Joyce DiDonato concerts are never demure events. The question is how the addition of Antonio Pappano – and the overall air of a musical holiday – makes a difference. Over these two discs, music that needs special pleading certainly gets it, especially with the little-known composers of the first half . . .

With its mixture of recitative and arioso, Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos scene can grow tedious. But DiDonato’s remarkable evolution as an actress now allows her to convey dramatic precision while respecting the music’s classical outlines . . . she now seems to look more deeply into her vocal core for fine shades of emotion that catch the most minute change of mood. If there’s a single moment that illustrates DiDonato’s growth from an effective artist to one who achieves greatness, it’s the vocal decrescendo that suggests her lover’s ships fading into the horizon. Such things can be gimmicky, but here DiDonato conveys the cold slap of reality: he’s not coming back – an effect underscored by reverberent recorded sound that conveys just how alone Ariadne is.

The harmonic extravagance of I canti della Sera, a song-cycle by Francesco Santoliquido (1883-1971) that feels like theatrically astute Rachmaninov, shows how DiDonato and Pappano effectively cut away anything that’s interpretatively extraneous – in one of the few recordings anywhere of this once-acclaimed composer who fell into eclipse for his Fascist politics. The shamelessly lyrical Ernest de Curtis (1875-1937) could easily be cabaret music. But, as in the two Rossini trifles on the disc, the specificity of DiDonato’s conviction breaks through one’s preconceived notions about the respective genres . . .

The first song group begins with a downright celestial version of Stephen Foster’s ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, arranged by David Krane with Impressionist chords suggesting Ives’s Central Park in the Dark. It’s also here that DiDonato’s voice has an expecially attractive plaintive quality, her small, quick vibrato recalling Frederica von Stade’s prime . . .

DiDonato certainly has the voice to give ‘A Lazy Afternoon’ the understated eroticism of Kaye Ballard (in the original 1954 cast album of The Golden Apple on RCA Victor) . . . her standard encore, ‘Over the Rainbow’, an irresistible talisman for this Kansas-born mezzo who, unlike her Wizard of Oz counterpart, will rule our emerald cities for years to come.

David Patrick Stearns – Gramophone

Recording of the Month: September 2015 – Provided that a listener has ears that hear and a heart that feels, any doubt of Joyce DiDonato’s status as one of the world’s greatest singers is eradicated by the first twenty minutes of Joyce & Tony Live at Wigmore Hall. Singing Franz Joseph Haydn’s cantata Arianna a Naxos (Hob.XXVIb:2), DiDonato leaves prima donna affectations and opera-house melodramatics to lesser artists. In the course of those twenty minutes, seconded by Sir Antonio Pappano’s intuitively-attuned piano accompaniment, she walks the shores of Naxos, searching the horizon for her beloved Theseus, not artfully portraying Ariadne but truly experiencing every pang of her panic, fear, and sorrow. DiDonato makes ‘Teseo mio ben, dove sei, dove sei tu?’ much more than an introductory recitative. Her first notes are breathless with exhaustion and disbelief as though Ariadne has struggled through miles of inhospitable terrain in search of her absent lover. She enunciates Italian with near-native inflections, avoiding the exaggeratedly trilled r’s and other typical Americanisms, but the real joy of this performance is her affinity for Haydn’s music . . . The depth of emotion that the singer conveys with only the first four words of ‘Ma, a chi parlo?’ is extraordinary. . . This is a reading of Arianna a Naxos in which the singer’s artistry fully reveals the wondrous dimensions of Haydn’s genius . . .

The voice remains a fresh, evergreen instrument over which its owner exercises near-perfect control, and DiDonato is an artist who is too shrewd to venture into territory that is foreign to her natural gifts. In this performance, she is partnered with wit and impeccable pianistic technique by Pappano, who takes the rôle of conversationalist rather than that of the eyes-on-his-scores accompanist. He and DiDonato carry on lively banter through music, piano and voice teasing, cajoling, and comforting one another in the course of the recital . . .

‘La danza,’ the eighth song in Rossini’s Soirées musicales, dates from 1835. This ebullient tarantella requires the vocal equivalent of an acrobat’s dexterity, and DiDonato delivers a scintillating account of the piece without making it seem like a carnival act. Rossinian patter is a mother tongue for DiDonato, and she speaks it in this performance with the proud elegance of a Parisian reciting Baudelaire . . .

Operatically-trained singers performing musical theatre standards and folksong settings can be dangerous collisions of over-singing, condescension, and overwrought histrionics. Operatically-trained to be sure, DiDonato is unfairly restricted by being designated an ‘opera singer.’ There is no question that she could convincingly sing chart-topping pop songs were it her prerogative to do so, and she here sings Art songs and gems of the Great White Way with the soulfulness of Joan Baez, the unpretentious textual clarity of Kate Smith, and, above all, the inimitable voice of Joyce DiDonato . . .

Stirring as every selection on Joyce & Tony is, DiDonato’s singing of ‘All the Things You Are’ from the 1939 show Very Warm for May, Kern’s last Broadway score, is truly special. Not even Mildred Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald sang the song more lovingly than DiDonato. Trade Pappano’s deftly-played piano for lute or theorbo, and this could be a ballad by John Dowland or an aria for Händel’s Dejanira . . .

It is difficult to place a stamp of originality on a performance of ‘Over the Rainbow,’ but DiDonato does so in precisely the manner that she conquers every piece on this program—by simply singing the music impeccably. By solving it, she gets at the heart of the problem with the song that scuttles so many singers’ efforts: genuine Joyce DiDonato is infinitely preferable to fake Judy Garland.”

Voix des Arts

Following the substantial Haydn cantata Arianna a Naxos – in which Joyce DiDonato’s interpretive imagination matches Tony Pappano’s thoughtful and expressive pianistic approach – there are a couple of attractive Rossini items . . . like everything else here DiDonato knows how to put it over, and Pappano provides her with absolutely convincing back-up.”

George Hall – BBC Music Magazine

One Comment

  1. Ulla Tarras-Wahlberg said…

    Dear Joyce, for a few days now, I have listened to ‘Joyce and Tony’ and I am deeply moved by your version of Arianna a Naxos – a completely new acquaintance for me. So impressive – and moving. Great. Also, the four Santoliquido songs – beautiful.
    For many years I have stayed away from the well-known popular American songs when sung by great operatic voices. I have thought that they simply don’t mix well and that these wonderful popular songs are not well served by too big voices. UNTIL NOW – after having listened closely, several times, to disc 2 – I am converted. You are so right in describing these lovely songs as the American equivalence of Schubert songs. How true, when you listen closely. I wish to thank you warmly for making me understand. I would have loved to be in the audience at the Wigmore!- – And now Donna Elvira. I have always wanted to hear your Elvira, but Japan is a bit too far. Dallas is closer! Good luck with Great Scott. Warmest wishes and thanks, Ulla

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

~ Joyce DiDonato