Rossini: Colbran, the Muse
Virgin Classics

DISC OF THE MONTH (Opera, UK, February 2010)

After Rubini from Flórez and Malibran from Bartoli, now comes a celebration of another star from the heyday of bel canto, courtesy of Joyce DiDonato. This time it’s the Naples-based Isabella Colbran, Rossini’s Spanish muse and, from 1822, his wife.

In the past, the Colbran roles have been tackled by both mezzos and sopranos. DiDonato, the self-styled Yankeediva best known for her feisty Rosina’s and Cenerentola’s, shows that she not only has all the notes well within her range, but that she can rise to the dramatic challenge of these altogether more grown-up Neapolitan heroines.

The disc kicks off with Armida’s virtuosic Act 1 Tema can Variazioni (‘D’amor al dolce impero’) leaving us no doubt of DiDonato’s technical abilities or the pleasing, easy beauty of her voice. The two extracts from Donna del Lago that follow are, if anything, even finer – good news for her role debut as Elena later this year in Paris. Anna’s touching prayer from Maometto II is sung with affecting simplicity, while Elisabetta’s “Quant’è grato” finds us nearly back on familiar DiDonato territory with its shades of Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa”. Rossini’s final opera for Italy is represented by Semiramide’s “Bel raggio lusinghier”: another unrepentent showstopper, perhaps, but one that demands quick shifts in mood, captured thrillingly here.

To finish, DiDonato is in irresistible form in Armida’s remarkable final scene, running the gamut from helplessness to vengeful fury in a heady mix of top notes, flames and fioritura.

Helped by the fine playing from the Santa Cecilia orchestra and Edoardo Müller’s alert direction, it’s difficult to imagine a more satisfying Rossini recital coming along for some time.

– Hugo Shirley, Opera (UK) , February 2010

**Opera News: EDITOR’S CHOICE**
With her sure sense of line and color, DiDonato takes possession of the repertory, mining every musical and vocal gesture to inhabit each character confidently. She never objectifies bravura passages…and she shows superb control of the placement and timing of ornamentation, especially the unmeasured, irregular flourishes that seem to have been a particular strength of Colbran.

DiDonato’s trills are flawless, her Italian is always precise, and her theatrical sense is magnificent.Musically and dramatically, the disc is perfection.

– Judith Malafronte, Opera News, January 2010

For DiDonato, such opportunities have yielded significant breakthroughs. While singers from Marilyn Horne to Bartoli speed through Rossini’s coloratura passagework like champion race cars in the Grand Prix, DiDonato’s Colbran disc represents a stunning alternative: She decides which notes constitute the musical core of music’s larger ideas and gives them the emphasis by treating everything around them as something ornamental. Thus, the music has rhetoric and never sounded so important.

– David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, January 2010

Sur les traces de la Callas
Whaou ! Dès les premières notes de ce nouvel enregistrement, l’explosion vocale que nous offre Joyce DiDonato dans son » D’Amor al dolce impero » soulève le souvenir de la version que Maria Callas donnait au public du Teatro Communale de Florence en avril 1952. Malgré la qualité désastreuse de la prise de son, Callas crevait l’écran. Jamais depuis on avait entendu une telle fougue, une telle projection vocale. Avec son interprétation, Joyce DiDonato marche sur les traces de la diva grecque à l’époque incontestable de sa gloire vocale. Joyce DiDonato nous emmne aujourd’hui jusqu’aux mêmes nues que celles que la Callas nous faisait toucher. Quel engagement, quelle fougue, quel phrasé. Les lourdeurs éléphantesques d’un accompagnement orchestral caricatural n’empêchent pas la mezzo de moduler sa voix dans de magnifiques couleurs et d’imposer des phrases d’où jaillissent des notes de miel.

Reprenant les airs que Rossini avait composés pour Isabella Colbran, sa femme, sa muse et la prima donna du San Carlo de Naples, Joyce DiDonato s’engage dans les tessitures de sopranos dramatiques. Elevant sans aucune difficulté son instrument vocal, la voix de la mezzo américaine surprend par l’aisance d’émission de ses vocalises les plus vertigineuses. Rien ne l’arrête.

Son « Tanti affetti in tal momento » de La Donna del Lago, opéra qu’elle créera sur la scène du Grand Théâtre de Genève en mai prochain avant de l’apporter à l’Opéra Garnier le mois suivant,laisse augurer des soirées magiques.

Comme il avait débuté, l’album de la mezzo se termine sur le final d’Armidaqui expose son éblouissante forme vocale et qui la voit s’investir dans une lecture dramatique du texte à donner la chair de poule. Avec une générosité artistique bouleversante, elle range aux « Oubliez-moi çà » toutes les sopranos qui, depuis la grande Maria Callas, se sont attaquées à cet opéra. L’entendre s’enflammer dans les dernières mesures de l’air final fait regretter de ne pas être LE directeur qui portera Joyce DiDonato en Armida sur la scne de son théâtre.

Un disque « must absolu » pour tout amateur de Rossini qui, à cette époque de son existence artistique, a composé les pages parmi les plus inspirées de tous ses opéras.

– Jacques Schmitt, Musique Classique, December 2009

By the time she completes the first astounding 50-second musical statement of “D’Amor al dolce impero” (To the sweet rule of love), mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has delivered her calling card. The soaring high notes, seamless runs, and imperious declarations of the impossibly demanding second-act finale of Gioachino Rossini’s opera Armida establish, in no uncertain terms, that she’s a major artist at the height of her powers.

The first of seven demanding arias, on a disc packed with enough flawless trills and high climaxes to satisfy the most demanding opera lover, the Armida tour de force introduces DiDonato’s long-awaited Rossini recital… Although the demands that Colbran placed on her voice led to her premature decline – she seems to have peaked around the age of 30, as did Maria Callas – DiDonato is going strong at 40. Her control is formidable in florid gems such as “Tanti affetti in tal momento”…from La donna del lago and “Bel raggio lusinghier”…from Semiramide. The variations, which DiDonato mostly composed herself, are extremely elaborate in ways that recall artists of a much earlier era. Listen to her perfect high trill 90 seconds into “Fra il padre”…to the rapid final section (or cabaletta) of “Tanti affetti,” and the force with which she races through the showpiece’s final runs. If this isn’t great singing, what is?

But fasten your seatbelt when DiDonato gets going, as in the finale to Act 3 of Armida (which is set in an encampment of crusaders outside Jerusalem). As cymbals clatter, percussion thunders, and lines such as “Destroy everything here, everything” (Distrutto tutto qui resti, tutto) are hurled off,you may find yourself shouting “Brava!” at your loudspeakers. At some point in her San Francisco PerformancesÐsponsored recital on Nov. 16, the corn-fed “Diva from Kansas” will likely take your breath away. This is one take-no-prisoners mezzo.

– Jason Victor Serinus, San Francisco Classical Voice, November 2009

Best CD of 2009:
Opera fans are a contentious lot, furiously sparring over the relative worth of leading singers, but a rare consensus has emerged around Joyce DiDonato, the down-to-earth mezzo with the gleaming voice and charming blog. She has the technique, the passion, the musical intelligence, and the instinct for the next right move. On her new collection of Rossini arias, inspired by the early nineteenth-century diva Isabella Colbran, DiDonato proceeds effortlessly from the prayerful lyricism of “Giusto ciel, in tal periglio” to the gleeful coloratura of “Bel raggio lusinghier” and on to the demonic rage of the “Armida” finale (audio above; crank it up). This finely dazzling disc is my pick for the best CD of 2009..

– Alex Ross, The New Yorker, December 2009

Joyce DiDonato is on thrilling form
in these devoted dedications to Colbran:

DiDonato is proving herself one of the most delightful artists of our time. She sings with a rare purity of tone, ease on the high Bs, an impressive degree of technical skill and lively powers of characterisation.

She is invigoratingly precise in her placement, fluent in scale work and well furnished with staccatiand trills… the difficult repertoire is sung with charm and mastery, and from all we read, their original exponent, to whom the recital is dedicated, is worthily honoured.

– John Steane, Gramophone, December 2009

It seemed unlikely that golden-throated mezzo Joyce DiDonato would be able to trump her sensational Handel disc, but trump it she does with this collection of arias written by Rossini for his wife, Isabella Colbran. DiDonato’s technique is flawless: scales, trills and long phrases pour out of her with ease. But she’s also one of those once-in-a-generation singers who can invest all the coloratura fiddle-faddle with real emotional depth.

An astonishing artist at her peak..

Classic FM, December 2009

DiDonato, arguably the finest Rossini mezzo on disc since the young Cecilia Bartoli …opts for scenes that have recently become standard recital rep: Elena’s Tanti affetti from La donna del lago, Desdemona’s long Act III scene including the Willow Song from Otello, and Semiramide’s Bel raggio lusinghier – a Callas-Sutherland-Caballé speciality. DiDonato’s pearly tone and easy coloratura make this difficult music sound effortless: she sports a more than acceptable trill, brilliant high staccato notes and long-breathed cantilena lines, prerequisites for a singer of the bel canto repertoire. Even if her Italian is not quite as punctilious as Bartoli’s, she makes the strongest possible case for the revival of these marvellous operas. She makes her debut as Elena next year – eventually to be seen at Covent Garden – but this disc whets the appetite for her Desdemona, her Armida, her Anna (Maometto Secondo) and her Elisabetta. This is outstanding Rossini singing by any standards, idiomatically accompanied.

– Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times, November 2009

Composer Gioachino Rossini found his biggest musical inspiration in diva Isabella Colbran, his wife for 15 years. American soprano Joyce DiDonato unleashes her extraordinary voice and dramatic skills to spectacular effect on this 16-aria Rossini collection, with four good vocal guests. The orchestra and chorus from the St. Cecilia Academy in Rome are in fine form under conductor Edoardo Müller.

Toronto Star, December 2009

If Angela Gheorghiu is the pre-eminent Puccini interpreter of her era, then Joyce DiDonato surely lays confident claim to the equivalent position regarding Rossini, a status cemented in unorthodox manner this year when, despite breaking her leg on the opening night, she completed the five-night run in The Barber of Seville at Covent Garden.

Here she focuses on arias inspired and premiered by Isabella Colbran, Rossini’s wife and the supreme diva of her era. It’s a majestic display from first to last, DiDonato balancing precision and emotion whether she’s delivering the subtle “Giusto ciel, in tal periglio” from Maometto II, or negotiating the high, almost laughing line of “Fra il padre, e fra l’amante” from La Donna Del Iago, which she’s scheduled to bring to London soon.

–Andy Gill, The Independent, November 2009

* * * * Nothing, as we know, defeats the American mezzo Joyce DiDonato. At Covent Garden in July she broke a leg during The Barber of Seville, yet carried on singing with a stick and a crutch. The “yankeediva” (her blogging name) is equally unfazed by any powerhouse competition in the field of coloratura singing. Give DiDonato a high-voltage trill, a rush of arpeggios, stratospheric leaps and the other vocal flights – this Rossini disc is full of them – and she conquers every time.

Her new disc follows the current fashion for shaping recitals around the repertoire of legendary singers from history. With trumpet fanfares of marketing, Cecilia Bartoli has celebrated Maria Malibran and a clutch of castrati. DiDonato, more quietly, focuses on Malibran’s early 19th-century contemporary, the Spanish soprano Isabelle Colbran, Rossini’s muse for a string of serious operas (written mostly for performance in Naples). After 1822, she was also his wife.

DiDonato rode to glory with Rossini’s comic mezzo parts, but Colbran’s roles (usually not ceiling scrapers, and thus amenable to the mezzo range) give her the chance for beefier, deeper characterisations. She’s Desdemona, forlorn and despairing, in Otello. She’s the sorceress heroine of Armida, who concludes the CD in barnstorming style by dedicating herself to Vengeance and soaring into billowing smoke on a chariot pulled by dragons.

In everything she does, DiDonato convinces. The taxing theme-and- variations rondo in Armida slips off her vocal chords like water off a duck’s back.

But there’s more on display than simple technical triumphs. Her clear diction, controlled breaths and phrasing, and the diversity of her emotional colouring always bring her characters to life and make each one an individual. She’s particularly touching as Desdemona, in a long Act III chunk centred on the Willow Song. Other operas visited include La donna del lago (on her stage agenda for the first time next year), Semiramide, and Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra

Long live the yankeediva.

– Geoff Brown, Times Online, November 2009

Here’s another bull’s-eye from the wondrous Joyce DiDonato. On her new CD with expert bel canto conductor Edoardo Müller and Rome’s topflight Santa Cecilia Orchestra, the brilliant Kansas mezzo has fashioned an eloquent tribute to Rossini’s wife and frequent inspiration, Isabella Colbran.

A Spanish contralto, Colbran evidently knew no limits when it came to interpretation or vocal range; neither does DiDonato, who dispenses ravishing sound and technical mastery at altitudes that many sopranos fear. Several of the roles straddle vocal categories; we’re unlikely to hear a more convincing Armida or Semiramide anytime soon. Beyond tonal beauty and musical precision, DiDonato brings great depth of feeling to sublime pages like “Giusto ciel” from Maometto II and Desdemona’s haunting Willow Song from “the other” Otello. Hers is surely the best-ever recorded performance of “Tanti affetti,” the virtuoso finale from La donna del lago, an opera she’ll tackle this season in Geneva and Paris.

The disc even offers a lovely cameo by another American Rossinian superstar, Lawrence Brownlee. Even if your shelves groan with great Rossini aria discs (Supervìa, Berganza, Horne, Valentini-Terrani, Von Stade, Podles, Bartoli), you need this one, too. And if you’re new to the composer’s delights, DiDonato’s offering is the place to start: today’s gold standard.

– David Shengold, TIME OUT NY, October 2009

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has been slowly building a major career, and now must certainly be counted among the most important singers of her generation… As novel as it may at first seem to have a mezzo-soprano singing this repertoire on disc, all of the selections on Colbran, the Muse have been recorded by other mezzos, with the exception of the final scene from Armida. Nevertheless, DiDonato turns in bravura performances to match the very best in several cases. Taken in sum, the disc is an achievement of outstanding quality. …

DiDonato moves from strength to strength, delineating her most successful characterizations in the gentler, more cantabile passages. Her Desdemona is especially satisfying, giving the singer ample opportunity to run through a challenging range of emotions. Likewise, the opening barcarolle fromLa donna del lago and prayer from Maometto II offer models of long-lined, bel canto singing. DiDonato brings great dignity and flair to the queens Elisabetta and Semiramide, …her singing here is nearly flawless, exhibiting – again – crystal clear diction, perfect intonation, and amazingly thrilling ornaments.

Her closing selection is the wonderfully theatrical final vengeance scene from Armida, and she triumphs completely over every vocal challenge, bringing the angry protagonist vividly to life. But the crowning glory of this disc is the rondo finale from La donna del lago in which DiDonato pulls out every stop, tossing off astounding runs, trills, perfectly modulated triplets, and ornaments galore. She even includes a series of back-and-forth staccati between high b-flat and C, finishing with a sterling trill of jaw-dropping quality. Given her success in Elena’s scenes, it is exciting to know that DiDonato will assume the entire role next spring. …

This is a superior disc of repertoire vital to an understanding of Rossini’s operatic legacy, and it belongs in every bel canto collection. DiDonato is on winning form throughout, and one hopes that she will continue exploring in this vein: there are more than enough remaining Colbran arias to fill at least one more disc – perhaps two.

–David Laviska, MUSICALCRITICISM.COM, October 2009