“The centrepiece of the programme was a complementary pair of death scenes featuring Cleopatra and Dido, sung by Joyce DiDonato. In this vast hall it is arguable that a larger voice is needed to rise to the tragic immensity of these utterances, but the ardour of her singing brought every word to life. La mort de Cléopâtre, with its shuddering end as the asp’s poison takes effect, took musical effects to the extreme. In Dido’s last aria from Les Troyens DiDonato and Gardiner combined to achieve an electric sensitivity.”
“Joyce DiDonato brought to life the tragic ends of two queens of antiquity with her inimitable brand of generosity, insight and theatricality. Her singing encompasses the idiomatic drama and conversational directness of the recitative passages and she has at her command a huge range of shade, nuance and weight, unfussily deployed and always hitting the emotional bull’s-eye. Her exquisite portamento-dips into her lower voice are charged with eroticism, Gardiner’s direction of Cleopatra, bitten by the snake, fading out of life was very affecting, and pleasure would be complete if DiDonato’s voice was just a bit more luxurious. In between came the ‘Royal Hunt and Storm’ interlude from The Trojans, with some powerful Nature music, birdsong, and hunting calls from an impressive quartet of saxhorns moving around the stage, not forgetting an unseen wordless chorus.”
“Joyce DiDonato gave a dramatic performance, full of arresting detail and a vivid attention to the words. She was complemented by the timbres and textures of the orchestra, everyone making the music full of quick changes of mood. The death scene at the end was terrific.
We plunged on directly to Dido’s death scene, with Joyce DiDonato rushing on during the prelude. She gave us fluidly shaped recitative, complemented by the colours in the orchestra. She made a passionate and dignified Dido, with touching references back to the love duet.”
“Commanding the stage with the cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre (“Cleopatra’s Death”), Joyce DiDonato suffused her instrument with the cavernous, brassy weightiness of the Egyptian queen’s dominance, enhancing the pit of her register with propulsive and eerie vibrato.
Unwinding words such as “vaincue” (“conquered”) and “déshonorée” (“dishonoured”) with sly diminuendi, DiDonato delineated the queen’s acrid shame before the loss she can scarcely admit: her and Mark Antony’s defeat by Augustus at the Battle of Actium.
As she reminisced about past glories with the phrase “Ah! Qu’ils sont loin, ces jours” (“Ah, far gone are those days”), DiDonato not only enhanced the word “jours” (“days”) with a lengthy, plaintive diminuendo, but delayed the second note with a languorous portamento symbolic of Cleopatra’s compulsion to hold on to nostalgia. Similar tactics were applied to other pairs of long-held notes to manifest the queen’s lengthy postponement of her journey from denial into reality.
Another ancient heroine was captured vocally in DiDonato’s execution of Dido’s suicide from the bombastic opera, Les Troyens. Here was another vanquished legendary queen forced to confront her conquest by the enemy: this time a sexual one. Plagued with remorse for having welcomed Aeneas and the Trojans to her land of Carthage and fallen in love with the hero, Dido pledges to kill herself.
With a tiny voice of humility DiDonato’s Dido proclaimed: “Je vais… mourir…” (“I shall die”), and referred to her traitorous lover Aeneas as her “bûcher” (“butcher”) with both hesitation and shock in a slow-evolving, subdued instrument.
Exhaustion from Dido’s ordeal was discernible in her wearied approach to the words “Inutile prière” (“Futile prayer”), where a tapering portamento made the second word sound like the heroine’s fast-dropping strength. Parting with her land was bitter sorrow as Dido bade farewell to Carthage and its stars (“Adieu beau ciel d’Afrique, astres que j’admirai”), and DiDonato fashioned her voice so that it shrunk into near-nothingness with sustained reticence; stayed surrender.”