In the stylized world of baroque opera and oratorio, emotional extremes were all the rage, with characters typically fighting battles of good and evil that inevitably led to happy endings of moral uplift and celebration. Such resolution was the reassurance audiences needed to get them through dark times.
Audiences haven’t changed all that much in 300 years, and neither have the times. Thus the striking contemporaneity of “In War and Peace,” the thoughtful and utterly winning concept program of baroque arias Joyce DiDonato brought to a packed Harris Theater for Music and Dance on Friday night, accompanied by the European period-instrument ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, under conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.
The concert was part of a 20-city fall world tour coinciding with the release of the mezzo-soprano’s latest Erato/Warner Classics album bearing the same title, from whose contents her program was drawn.
Perhaps only a singer of DiDonato’s confident artistry could have created and brought off such a highly theatrical concept without it feeling arty and self-conscious. All of the arias were well chosen and formed a seamless continuity with the linking instrumental interludes. The stylish authenticity and immense vitality that marked her singing and the orchestral contributions sealed the success of a most unusual program.
Baroque purists would argue that DiDonato’s charismatic vocalism alone would render all that elaborate stage apparatus unnecessary, and I shared that concern, at first. What were we to make of all that stage smoke, those flickering strobes, colored lights and drifting-petal projections, as the royally attired diva, her face painted like an Amazon warrior, prowled the stage and donned designer capes, sometimes shadowed by a sinuous male dancer?
But it took only a few minutes and I was won over by her appealing program, beautifully performed, that interspersed familiar soprano and alto arias by Handel and Purcell with unknown vocal gems by the Neapolitan baroque composers Leonardo Leo and Niccolo Jommelli, separated by orchestral interludes.