Bay Area music lovers have known about the brilliance of the American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato longer than most, thanks to her breakthrough Merola performance as Rossini’s Cenerentola and a triumphant Schwabacher Debut Recital back in the mid-’90s. Yet I doubt that even her biggest local fans – and yes, I am one – could have foreseen the vigor, the subtlety or the sheer vocal splendor that DiDonato brought to her Monday night recital in Herbst Theater.

Appearing under the aegis of San Francisco Performances and dexterously accompanied by pianist John Churchwell, DiDonato gave yet another reminder of why she has established herself as one of the most exciting young singers of our day.

Her voice is plush and rich-hued, with a secure and forceful lower register, yet it’s agile enough to move with easy grace through the most fleet-footed passagework. Her technical command is prodigious, with superb dynamic control and effortless precision, and she has a communicative gift that forges a winning bond with an audience.

On top of all that, DiDonato’s restless intelligence leads her to seek out and champion a wide range of music, from the operatic standards of Handel, Rossini and Strauss to the byways of the song literature.

Monday was byway night, as DiDonato unveiled a program of Italian and Spanish songs, most of them little-known at best. And if she didn’t entirely persuade a listener to share in her enthusiasms, she certainly gave it her best shot…

Still, she sang these with irresistible ardor and brought an even wider arsenal of artistic resources to the opening set of “Arie antiche” from the 17th and 18th centuries: graceful expressivity in Pergolesi’s “Se tu m’ami,” long-held tones and exquisite dynamic shades in Caccini’s “Amarilli mia bella,” and quick wit in Rontani’s “Or ch’io non sequo più.”

DiDonato took a broader and more dramatic perspective in two Rossini numbers, Desdemona’s haunting “Willow Song” from “Otello” and a dazzlingly virtuosic encore of “Tanti affetti,” the final showpiece from “La Donna del Lago.”

Then, before finishing, DiDonato pulled out one last surprise: An encore of Harold Arlen’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” done with extraordinary musical eloquence and depth of feeling. No knock on the great Judy Garland, but I have never heard this song sound so unnervingly powerful.

–Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, November, 2009

I have no greater joy than basking in the artistry of a great singer at the top of her form. Such was my feeling as mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, perfectly accompanied by pianist John Churchwell, began her San Francisco Performances recital Monday at Herbst Theatre. Singing to an eager audience that included many supporters and fans who have followed her ever since her 1997 San Francisco summer in the Merola Opera Program, DiDonato looked every inch the star in the baby-blue, Grecian-style dress and gold-patterned cinch that perfectly complemented her shining blonde hair.

She also sang like a star. At her finest in the opening group of six mostly familiar Italian Arie Antiche, DiDonato … was quick to share her considerable strengths. Durante’s Danza, danza, fanciulla gentile (Dance, dance, young girl) displayed the fiery passion and almost growling chest voice that are so amply displayed on her sensational new CD, Rossini: Colbran the Muse.

For Pergolesi’s more subdued Se tu m’ami (If you love me), she summoned up her perfect trill, as well as a sweetness sparsely employed on the Rossini disc. The real proof of her greatness came as Churchill joined her as if one for the perfectly judged legato, marvelous trills, and exquisitely soft, breath-stopping singing of Caccini’s Amarilli mia bella (Amaryllis, my lovely one), and the thrilling full tone and gorgeous highs in the 20th-century arrangement of Rossi’s Mio Ben (My beloved).

DiDonato followed with the “Willow Song” from Rossini’s (not Verdi’s) opera Otello. After Churchill’s absolutely riveting, poetic introduction, DiDonato produced her most gorgeous, heartfelt singing of the evening. Alive to the meaning of every word, her lower tones she seemed to open a portal to the soul. With her full voice at the end the most wondrous of the recital, DiDonato was magnificent.

Although the adoring audience was too discriminating to stand, when energetic applause from a seated position seemed more appropriate, DiDonato returned with the operatic encore we had hoped for. Singing “Tanti affetti” (So many emotions) from Rossini’s La donna del lago (The lady of the lake) for only her third time in public, DiDonato accompanied a host of perfect trills and immaculate runs with a deliciously teasing two-octave drop that would have gotten two thumbs up from Marilyn Horne, who made a great recording of the aria. The performance, even better than DiDonato’s recently recorded traversal, brought the audience to its feet.

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

More than any other recitalist I’ve experienced lately, Joyce DiDonato has far outstripped the rest in terms of knowing how to make a good end.

It wasn’t just the mezzo-soprano’s encore choices that touched the audience last night at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, though they made for a magical sign-off. A showy Rossini (“Tanti Aaffetti In Tal Momento” from Donna Del Lago) aria followed by “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” don’t sound like great choices. They seem like they’d be tacky, frankly. But DiDonato brought such good-natured feist to the Rossini and understated empathy to the Arlen-Harburg standard that these choices came over as the perfect way to send people home.

DiDonato is also masterful at ending individual songs in a powerful way. The conclusion of a couple of songs in a suite by the late 19th/early 20th century Spanish composer Fernando Obradors were particularly magical. In “Con amores la mia madre” the final cadence spiraled into the air like a butterfly taking off from a flower. “Del cabello mas sutil” ended with a gasp.

In every single piece, the performer demonstrated absolute and spell-binding control over her final note, sometimes decrescendoing incrementally to absolute silence over what seemed like an eternity, and at other times going out with a mighty bang or puff of smoke. She never fizzled.

It’s no wonder that the Herbst audience — normally so well versed in traditional concert hall etiquette — didn’t know quite what to do with itself after every song. There was often a breathtaking silence, followed by applause, even in the middle of a series or suite of songs.

When DiDonato finally exited after her final encore, she left her bouquet of flowers on stage. Just like the bouquet, the memory of her final notes lingers in my heart and will continue to do so for a long while hence.

–Chloe Veltman, Voicebox 91.7 KALW, November, 2009