We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


Joyce DiDonato with Il Pomo d'Oro   (photo by Chris Lee)

We like concert programs with a theme and we liked the theme chosen by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato for her recital at Carnegie Hall. The first half of the program was dedicated to War with the second half dedicated to Peace. Ms. DiDonato is not just an artist of consummate musicality, and not just a glamorous superstar, but also a special person with humanitarian values. Her concept for the evening, of which she was Executive Producer, was the achievement of harmony through music. She herself wrote a moving essay for the program book.

The program, directed by Ralf Pleger, (who directed Ms. DiDonato in the documentary film The Florence Foster Jenkins Story) was designed to take us on a journey from darkness to light, from chaos to order, from anger to joy. If our joyful and peaceful mood at the end of the concert was any indication,  she achieved her goal. We hope others felt the same but our companion shared our view that she was "preaching to the converted". We can think of several people who needed this journey and weren't there!   Nevertheless, it made for a compelling evening.

Accompanying Ms. DiDonato was a group of musicians whose artistry matched her own. This was our first time hearing Il Pomo d"Oro and we hope it won't be our last. The group was led by conductor and harpsichordist Maxim Emelyanychev; he is young but confident and effective. Comprising the group were a string section, joined by a trio of flutists, an oboe, a bassoon, an archlute, and a viola da gamba. Anna Fusek, a violinist, played a sopranino recorder with such outstanding skill that she took our breath away.

The occasion for this unforgettable solo happened to be our favorite piece on the program--"Angelletti che cantata" from Handel's Rinaldo--the scene in which Almirena sings of her love for the eponymous hero. The virtuoso playing of the recorder sounded to us like a chorus of nightingales.

Another aria from Rinaldo--"Lascio ch'io pianga"--expressed another aspect of Almirena's character, her sadness in captivity. Ms. DiDonato colored her voice so differently that we wished we might have heard the two arias backo-to-back but they were in different sections.  She sang this melancholy melody to great effect.

One might think that we favor the works with which we are familiar, but we also greatly enjoyed two works we'd never heard; it was Ms. DiDonato's scholarship that unearthed two forgotten 18th c. operas by two Neapolitan composers. Leonardo Leo wrote L"Andromaca in 1742, based on the tragedy by Racine about Hector's widow, slain in the Trojan War by Achilles.  "Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro" had a fast angry section followed by a lyrical sad section and Ms. DiDonato made excellent use of variations in color and dynamics.

Leo's student Niccolo Jommelli wrote Attilio Regolo in 1753, a setting of a text by Metastasio. We heard Ms. DiDonato's expression of pure joy in Attilia's aria in which she welcomes her father--"Par che di giubilo"--and welcomes him with incredibly expressive fioritura, at which this singer is a master.

There were a couple other arias by Handel and Purcell and a piece by Arvo Part that fit right in but, for our taste, nothing equalled the above-mentioned works.  However, one thing surpassed them.  That was the encore--"Morgen" by Richard Strauss, which was taken at a slow tempo and delivered pianissimo with intense feeling.  We are not likely to hear it sung that well again; we heard it differently, as a song of hope and promise.

We suppose we are obliged to say something about the other elements of the evening. Ms. DiDonato's gowns were gorgeous and she wore them well.  Her bare feet were barely visible but we wondered if that was why her singing was so "grounded". The face and neck paint seemed unnecessary.

For our taste, the video projections by Yousef Iskandar were distracting and added nothing to our pleasure. We did not like Henning Blum's lighting at all.  For much of the time, banks of lights aimed at the audience were blindingly bright.

As far as the choreography and dancing by Manuel Palazzo, it seemed superfluous. He has an attractive chest and wore his floor length skirt well but the movements were the same old post-Martha Graham tropes that have been boring us at modern dance recitals for years. He did not have much to do but occasional writhing and twirling and an interaction with Ms. DiDonato's cape.

We will take our singing "neat"!

(c) meche kroop

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