Joyce DiDonato has never been an artist who takes the easy option. As she recounted to the audience, she and pianist Craig Terry could have chosen a feel-good programme for their first appearance in London since the pandemic. Instead, they presented their meditations on loneliness and solitude in a daringly eclectic programme, ranging from Parisotti and Hasse to Mahler and Duke Ellington. There was a sense of stylistic whiplash especially in the cavernous Barbican, but DiDonato’s customary thoughtful artistry and impeccable technique made for an evening that was never less than fascinating.

Joyce DiDonato
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Abandonment, despair, hope, and death – classical tragedy has been a source of inspiration for opera through the ages, and DiDonato and Terry offered portraits of Cleopatra, Dido and Ariadne. Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos is, frankly, not the composer’s most inspired music, but DiDonato imbued the extended recitatives with veristic emotion, ranging from whispered pleas to the declamatory fury of the presto finale. Terry matched DiDonato’s emotional range if not her stylistic control – it may not have been Haydn at his most historically informed, but it sure was exciting.

Cleopatra found DiDonato on more familiar ground, presenting arias by Hasse and Handel she recorded for the first time nearly a decade ago. Hasse’s “Morte, col fiero aspetto” was a rousing start to the second half of the recital, filling the hall with spitfire coloratura and dazzling trills. Handel’s “Piangerò” offered a moment of respite, with noble phrasing and the most relaxed, ravishing singing of the evening. DiDonato’s lyric mezzo seems to have grown, with a wonderfully plush lower middle register that she showed off to great effect in the da capo. The voice still lacks the voluptuous fullness one associates with Berlioz’s Didon, but it’s a role DiDonato has carefully added to her repertoire. Terry’s watchful accompaniment allowed DiDonato a wider palette of vocal colours than in a staged production, down to the merest vibrato-less whisper as Didon comes to her fiery end.

Craig Terry and Joyce DiDonato
© Mark Allan | Barbican

This recital was nominally a rescheduling of DiDonato and Terry’s tour for “Songplay”, their recent jazz reworking of the classic 24 Italian Songs. They offered a few selections from their album, from a witty reworking of Giordani’s Caro mio ben to a virtuoso medley of Parisotti’s Se tu m’ami and Rosa’s Star vicino, deftly highlighting the parallels between Baroque ornamentation and jazz riffing. It was all very unexpected and provocative and brought some much-needed laughter following the seriousness of the first half, but I can’t help but think it would have worked better in a more intimate venue. DiDonato ceded the spotlight to Terry in these pieces, highlighting the obvious rapport and admiration between these two artists.

The most interesting item on the programme was Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, following DiDonato’s recent foray into Schubert Lieder. It’s a much lighter voice than one expects in Mahler, bringing a youthfulness and flexibility to Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder. Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft sits somewhat uncomfortably for her, not helped by the slow tempo. One gets the sense that she is not yet fully comfortable with these songs, with some apprehensive intonation in the increasingly dense textures of Um Mitternacht. The highlight of the concert, though, was a spellbinding Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. DiDonato and Terry pushed the limits of how slowly and how quietly they could perform, drawing in the audience and fading into what seemed like an endless silence after the song had finished – a moment of catharsis for those onstage and off.