Seen and Heard International
by Jim Pritchard
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Joyce DiDonato is an exclusive recording artist with Erato/Warner Classics and her latest release is a deeply personal one for her and is called In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music. It will not be the first time I have written how everyone knows that it is not just enough these days to simply rehash the ‘routine’ and so every new album – if it is to ‘sell’ – must have a new slant, a fresh concept. And so, we arrive at this concert, part of a 20-city international tour that poses the question: in the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?

A great deal of thought seems to have gone into presentation; it was not a typical sing, take the applause, walk off and come back on recital. There was video (by Yousef Iskandar), lighting effects (by Henning Blum), costume changes, as well as, a male dancer. All in all, it was the understated(?) evening with the wonderful Joyce DiDonato we are becoming used to. I entered the Barbican Hall several minutes before the advertised starting time of the concert and DiDonato was already sitting to the rear of the platform, with the bare-chested dancer, Manuel Palazzo, lying prone at the front. She remained still until Palazzo stirred to play notes on the harpsichord and the period-instrument baroque ensemble, Il Pomo d’Oro, came on and DiDonato launched into Handel’s ‘Scenes of horror, scenes of woe’ from Jeptha.

Maxim Emelyanychev directed the players mostly from harpsichord and Il Pomo d’Oro were an important part of the success of In War and Peace and not for a second did he indulge Joyce DiDonato and indeed appeared on more than one occasion to be challenging her to produce her best, especially during some of the faster and more florid passages. That the small orchestra were composed of virtuosi was never better shown than when Anna Fusek set down her violin and played a sopranino recorder to accompany DiDonato with bird song in the delightful ‘Augelletti, che cantata’ from Rinaldo …

As before when I have heard her sing, DiDonato’s virtuosity is not in doubt and her mezzo voice can imbue any of the myriad flowery lines with considerable drama. She has wonderful breath control, an impeccable vocal technique and excellent diction, which made the surtitles for the arias in English virtually superfluous.

Speaking at the end of the concert DiDonato spoke of a sleepless night recently which made this In War and Peace project even more relevant for her. Without mentioning him by name this must have been the unexpected success of Donald Trump in the Presidential election. In hindsight, it was clear that she brought out all her disquiet about this in the opening ‘Scenes of horror, scenes of woe’. It was dramatically engaging from start to finish with a mother’s sense of panic (and the singer’s own?) clearly in evidence. In Leonardo Leo’s rarely heard – like much we were hearing – ‘Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro!’ from Andromaca, DiDonato believably expressed the conflicting duality of urging violence and the tenderness of a mother’s love by being the consummate storyteller she is. Purcell’s ‘Dido’s Lament’ was a highlight for me of the whole concert – perhaps because it was the work on her programme I knew best – and it was given a typically dignified and poignant rendition full of the sorrow, regret, or unhappiness inherent in a ‘lament’. It was equalled by Handel’s supplicative ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ which is set to some typically exquisite music.

We eventually were told that Joyce DiDonato’s own response to how do we find peace is through love. The power of love to overcome all and – as Alexandra Coughlan wrote in her programme notes – ‘transform even the cruellest of pains to joy’ was explicit in Purcell’s ‘They tell us that you mighty powers’ from The Indian Queen. The second half also reflected ‘nature’s peace’ in a trio of works by Handel: his ‘Crystal Streams in murmurs flowing’, the surging tempest depicted in ‘Da tempeste il legno infranto’ from Giulio Cesare and those birds in ‘Augelletti, che cantata’. The joy and jubilation we heard suggested there is cause for cautious optimism and Joyce DiDonato brought everything to a rousing conclusion with a virtuoso aria from Niccolò Jommelli’s Attilio Regolo. ‘Par che di Giubilo’ was sung with a smile on her face and in her voice and her ebullience was infectious. Here – as elsewhere – Joyce DiDonato and Il Pomo d’Oro seemed the perfect partnership …

I realised at the end of In War and Peace how delightful it had been to be in Joyce DiDonato’s company once again and she seemed to be communicating individually to each one of us in the Barbican Hall and as a result there was total concentration – and lack of coughing! – from the audience which was a significant achievement in itself. Regardless of the Vivienne Westwood designs she was wearing to accompany the disparate themes of ‘War’ and ‘Peace’ in the two sections of the concert there was always so much catching the eye; though the video and lighting effects came and went and Manuel Palazzo didn’t seem to dance much. Only intermittently involved, Palazzo occasionally seem to give the character DiDonato was ‘portraying’ something to react to and only came into his own with an anguished solo – that seemed to railing against war and yearning for peace – to Arvo Pärt’s poignant Da pacem, Domine.

Can the music of we heard bring peace and harmony to the world? I doubt it. I am not the first to recognise how seeing and hearing Joyce DiDonato we are witness to humanity at its best, so despite its slightly flawed concept In War and Peace was a remarkable achievement. Whatever we are going through individually or collectively – as she said – the sun will shine again tomorrow. Sadly, many of the critics and guests around me had left before Joyce DiDonato’s elegiac and heartfelt encore, Richard Strauss’s Morgen!, which includes that very line and sent the audience away in an appropriately reflective mood.