Joyce DiDonato has been a regular visitor to Carnegie Hall for some seasons now. On December 15, the industrious and remarkably thoughtful mezzo-soprano brought something completely original to the august hall’s stage. In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music marked a curated theatrical presentation blending vocal and instrumental music with dance, design, fashion, video imagery and what might be termed either politics or philosophy.
The evening’s title was the same as DiDonato’s recent Erato CD with Maxim Emelyanychev and the dynamic early music band Il Pomo d’Oro; the Carnegie Hall performance marked the last scheduled U.S. stop of an international series of concerts “touring behind the album,” as one says of pop singers …
For some in the New York audience, doubtless just the excellent music making would have sufficed. But DiDonato has long given thought to expanding the audience for classical music. She has been an industry leader in the non-trivial use of social media to widen her base of hearers, and has begun to shape projects like this one that might spark off those more drawn to theatrical and visual narrative than to opera. The discourse generated by this concert tour—online, on the cards DiDonato had placed in every program, and what she said in addressing the crowd at curtain calls—concerned the now-more-than ever-poignant question: what do you/we do to find peace? For DiDonato, it is via the expressiveness of music; hence, her program exploring musical treatments of war and its absence. The classical music industry tends toward an apolitical and blasé disinvolvement: few opera singers would have the guts to bring such an emotionally exposed project before the “industry” public that Carnegie perforce attracts, but every aspect of the evening bespoke DiDonato’s courage. The mezzo and Emelyanchev‘s splendidly alert forces were well rewarded by the crowd’s roars.
The concert’s substance was mainly Handel and Purcell, though we also heard two bravura arias given world premières on the new CD. The “War” portion, starting starkly with Jephtha’s vehement “Scenes of horror,” affirmed how remarkably and subtly DiDonato “speaks” and colors Handelian phrasing in both English and Italian. Leonardo Leo’s fiery “Prendi quel ferro!” from L’Andromaca (1742) dazzled the audience before things turned more melancholy—and perhaps musically richer—with deeply expressive versions of Dido’s “When I am laid in earth,” Agrippina’s extremely tricky “Pensieri” and the iconic “Lascia ch’io pianga,” a real stop-time moment. The evening’s “Peace” portion began with a restrained amatory prayer from The Indian Queen before DiDonato moved on to more Handel. In my view, 24/7 broadcasting of DiDonato’s ravishing traversal of Susanna’s “Crystal streams” might bring peace. On to Cleopatra’s rejoicing “Da tempeste,” with fascinating ornamentation. As lead-in to Rinaldo’s bucolic “Augelletti, che cantate”, Palazzo playfully coaxed the tall Anna Fusek from the second violin section to play the aria’s avian recorder obbligato with fantastic tone and control. DiDonato answered her with radiant tone and equally precise staccatos. The musicians then swept into a total diva display vehicle the mezzo milked for self-mockery, “Par che di giubilo” from Nicolò Jommelli’s 1758 Attilio Regolo. This swaggering aria served as the first encore; but the mezzo used Richard Strauss’ quiet “Morgen!”—with Baroque concertmaster Edson Scheid in engaging support—to end the evening on a note of shimmering hope … breathtaking music making by DiDonato and Il Pomo d’Oro …”