CSO Sounds & Stories: Joyce DiDonato confesses that she ‘worships’ at the altar of Berlioz
Joyce DiDonato is not only one of world’s finest classical singers, she’s also one of the boldest and most adventuresome. She likes to venture into less-charted areas of the vocal repertoire as she did in 2016 when she made her long-anticipated debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in its first performances of Giuseppe Martucci’s song cycle, La canzone dei ricordi (The Song of Memory), under Riccardo Muti.
“It was a supreme experience for me, performing music that was new to me but at the hands of the maestro who is a singular champion for that music,” she said via e-mail. “So during the performances it was clear that I was able to experience something utterly unique and memorable — music of sheer beauty, presented with such elegance and love, and with that signature, extraordinary sound of the CSO. I feel very fortunate to have had that experience.”
When DiDonato returns to Symphony Center, she, the CSO and Muti will take on another work outside the standard repertory: Berlioz’s La Mort de Cléopâtre (The Death of Cleopatra). Concerts are set for May 2, 4 and 7 in Orchestra Hall and May 3 at Wheaton College as part of the CSO’s annual series of concerts in the institution’s 2,357-seat Edman Memorial Chapel. In addition, she will perform the work in November with the CSO at Carnegie Hall as part of the second Perspectives series that she has curated at the famed venue.
“Any chance to arrive at Carnegie Hall with Maestro Muti and his extraordinary orchestra with the music of Berlioz is something I cannot say no to,” she said. “As a Perspectives artist, I want to bring significant elements of my artistic life to that season, and without a doubt, that now must include Berlioz. I am certain it will be a highlight of my season.”
The scène lyrique, as Berlioz called it, was not published until after his death, and the work has begun to be performed only in the last 40 years or so. At 25, the composer wrote this 21-minute work in 1829 as his third attempt to win the coveted Prix de Rome, then a virtual guarantee to a successful career. But the conservative jurors were so taken aback by the daring nature of this forward-looking essay that they chose not to award the prize that year.
Based on a text by Pierre-Ange Vieillard, a 19th-century French poet, La Mort de Cléopâtre tells of Cleopatra’s suicide on Aug. 12, 30 B.C., after the defeat of her naval fleet during the pivotal Battle of Actium. She invokes the spirits of the pharaohs and wonders if she has lived up to the great rulers of the past. “Here was an idea worth expressing in music,” wrote Berlioz in his Memoirs. “I had often in my imagination conceived a musical equivalent of Juliet’s wonderful monologue, ‘How if, when I am laid into the tomb,’ a passage that had something in common, at least in its sense of dread, with the feelings contained in the invocation which our French rhymester had put into the mouth of Cleopatra.”
DiDonato’s affinity for Berlioz, a revolutionary composer who is often still viewed as something of an iconoclast, was made clear in 2018. Her Erato album of the composer’s five-act grand opera, Les Troyens, with conductor John Nelson, won two Gramophone Awards, including recording of the year. “I don’t know how you could be a mezzo-soprano and not worship at the feet of Hector Berlioz,” she said. “He has given us some of the greatest music ever written for our voices. It is poignant, rich, human, deeply feminine, vulnerable, empowering — each role feels like a treasure and a profound journey.”
The mezzo-soprano’s adventurous spirit also has been on view in In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music, a program of Baroque arias, which she brought to the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in December 2016. The innovative, semi-staged program features arias by such noted Baroque composers as George Frideric Handel, Leonardo Leo, Claudio Monteverdi and Henry Purcell and features Il Pomo d’Oro, a fast-rising, European period-instrument ensemble founded in 2012. (As part of the SCP Chamber Music Series next season, DiDonato and Il Pomo d’Oro will perform May 31, 2020, at Orchestra Hall. She also will join the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal for a concert Nov. 19 on the SCP Orchestra Series.)
DiDonato has already performed In War and Peace nearly 40 times, and she has 10 or so more concerts to go, with a significant leg this fall that will take it to Colombia, Argentina and Brazil, as well as such American cities as Houston and Atlanta. By the time she brings the project to an end nearly three years to the date after it began in Washington, D.C., she will have presented the program in more than 45 cities on five continents. “We’ve taken this all across North America and Europe, and more recently in Moscow, Istanbul, Beijing, Abu Dhabi, Seoul, etc.,” she said. “It has been the project of my life, and the power of threading a vision of peace across all of these countries in front of thousands and thousands of people has invigorated me and completely demonstrated the power of music to unite people.”