Opera News | by OUSSAMA ZAHR

Mezzo Joyce DiDonato sets the standard for Rossini singing today. But that may not have been obvious at the beginning of her career. I’m thinking of her performance as Rosina in an atrocious, Mideast-inspired, seraglio-style staging of Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Paris Opera in 2002.

She was accomplished enough to head a cast at a world-class house and receive the biggest ovation of the night, but something was missing. Her voice was plump and fleet, but she was shrouded in veils. Dramatically, the video makes clear that, absent a witty staging, the singers were swallowed by the capacious settings and fighting to be seen.

Fast-forward five years to the Met production of the same opera, by Bartlett Sher, and DiDonato is in sovereign form – sexy, confident, kittenish without giving it all away, her coloratura as notable for its intelligence as for its speed. Her performance is individual and deeply musical. “Una voce poco fa” has its own particular zest. Halfway through the opera – somewhere around “Dunque io son” – the performance does something every operagoer waits for and rarely experiences: it catches fire. DiDonato is tossing off high roulades with perfectly free tone that is both juicy and precise. She is witty and ravishing, and before you know it, she has the audience locked up.

DiDonato’s anointment as a diva was not preordained by some powerful manager who put her on the inside track or guaranteed by a recording contract come too soon. She was patient in her journey from what she calls the “Catholic Midwest” to the most prestigious stages in Paris and Italy, then on to the rest of the world. Along the way, at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts and then the Houston Grand Opera Studio, she studied hard to learn the technique that would make everything look and sound so easy.

Now DiDonato is an artist in her prime. Her first Met appearances, as Cherubino and Stéphano, revealed a formidable singer who knew her voice’s power to draw the listener to her. Subsequent performances in the U.S. and abroad – from Cendrillon and Octavian to Berlioz’s Béatrice to Mozart’s Idamante and Donna Elvira – left some critics wondering if there was anything she couldn’t do. (Indeed, she sings the cleanest runs I’ve heard in “Ah, fuggi il traditor.”) Her performances of Handel have bel canto technique and Romantic passion. Her voice can be round and plummy, lean and insinuating or bubbly and light. It has wonderful elasticity, a satisfyingly dark, measured middle, and an easy, aligned top.

With such a voice at her disposal, DiDonato puts one in mind of Horne and Berganza, not because she imitates them but because she’s working with the vocabulary of the same hallowed tradition. For all her style and good taste, she knows when to exercise her prima donna prerogatives, as in Angelina’s rondo in La Cenerentola, with trills that stop time and divisions that catch the ear against the aural thicket of the orchestra and chorus. Though the standard delivery of this piece veers toward personal jubilation of a conceited sort – i.e., “Look at how happy I am,” “Look at how beautiful I am when I smile,” “Gosh, my voice sounds good” – DiDonato makes it about the people around her. It brings to mind her recent run of Barbieres at Covent Garden, when she broke her leg onstage, finished the show on a crutch, then completed the run in a wheelchair, all the while crediting her colleagues for making it possible. That’s generosity of an uncommon sort. Acclaim, naturally, can make artists conscious of their own talents. But one doesn’t get the sense that DiDonato is ever watching herself perform. She doesn’t make it obvious that she is pleased with herself, and that makes it easy for us to enjoy watching her. She maintains an invigorating commitment to dramatic cogency.

That commitment is nowhere more thrilling than in her performance as Dejanira in Luc Bondy’s searing production of Handel’s Hercules. It is a physical and musical – in a word, operatic – performance worthy of encomium. Critics don’t write such things often, because they can be embarrassing in hindsight. That kind of exaltation, especially in opera, is reserved for veterans who have spent decades on the boards. As Dejanira, DiDonato gives us the most thorough imaginable examination of jealousy as a passion – from the withering feelings of humiliation and foolishness that incite it to its blind empowerment, self-righteousness, narrow logic and self-destructiveness. But the musical moments are there, too. In Dejanira’s “There in myrtle shades reclined,” DiDonato achieves one of those uniquely Handelian moments – a devastated peacefulness, when there are no more tears left to shed. At other times, her face contorts into the mask of a sob, as if disfigured by agony. Her final accompagnato is sung like a postmodern mad scene straight out of Berio; it may not be a traditional delivery, but it is a visceral, bracing performance.

For those who find DiDonato’s vocalism too raw at times in that production, she shows a different side in her most recent Handel recording, a full-length Alcina with Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco, proving herself again the vocal chameleon. She dispatches the soprano title role as if it had been written just for her: she is bewitching, as the sorceress must be, with a prismatic voice constantly giving off new colors as it turns gently in the light. It’s an alluring tease from an artist who continues to surprise her audiences in the best possible ways.