by Michael Lee
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That this is no ordinary concert is clear before even entering the auditorium. On the programme stands there are cards for everyone in the audience, inviting answers to the question ‘in the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?’

Joyce DiDonato, touring with period-instrument ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, has themed this concert ‘In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music’. Once inside, the lighting is low, there is a smudge of dry ice in the air, and there is the singer herself, seated statue-like at the rear of the stage while at the front a male figure lies on the ground, his body twisted like a torso from a baroque painting.

The theatricality continues with the concert, with DiDonato’s flowing designer gowns and physical gestures, occasional interventions of dancer/choreographer Manuel Palazzo (who nevertheless avoids baroque dance, clearly still a step too far even for early-music fans), and abstract animations projected on the back wall, video-art style. The sophisticated presentation is matched by the eclectic and themed programme, centring on music by Handel and Henry Purcell: the first half evoking the experience of war and conflict with a second half all peaceful reverie and hopeful victory. It’s creative and engaging and far from being a didactic slog, though the intention is clear: we need art, now more than ever.

There are many pleasures along the way. At the heart of it all, DiDonato’s voice is as beautiful, richly-coloured and agile as ever, and she proves a compelling advocate for her material. The aria Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro [take the sword you monster] from Leonardo Leo’s opera ‘Andromaca’ brings in a feverish intensity, sung with fabulous power, contrasted with moments of deep tenderness.

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