When on Sunday afternoon Joyce DiDonato came onstage at Carnegie Hall, the savvy New York audience gave her a truly royal reception by welcoming her with a long ovation. Such a reaction from the audience was hardly surprising. Hailed as “The Queen of Opera”, today’s most renowned mezzo-soprano and recipient of every musical award available to a vocalist, DiDonato represents everything that modern audiences expect to see in an opera singer: superb vocalism, appealing looks, impeccable taste, and above all, a genuine personality.

Joyce DiDonato © Virgin Classics/Nick Heavican
Joyce DiDonato
© Virgin Classics/Nick Heavican

Even though every opera project that this consummate artist has taken up over the last decade turned out to be a real sensation, it is the Drama Queens recital tour that can be considered DiDonato’s most significant accomplishment, truly worthy of a queen.

Dressed in a stunning figure-fitting gown bustled up in rich cascades of red satin (Vivienne Westwood’s special creation for the tour), DiDonato invited us to join her in exploring the essence of highly dramatic, yet utterly human life on the throne in a program of rarely performed 17th- and 18th-century royal arias. Along with works by such Baroque luminaries as Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Handel, the recital revived some long-forgotten gems by Orlandini, Hasse and Porta.

Accompanied by acclaimed fifteen-member period orchestra Il Complesso Barocco, under the direction of fiercely expressive first violin Dmitri Sinkovsky, DiDonato offered a performance of superb singing and breathtaking dramatic contrasts. Whether her queens and princesses came across as bitter abandoned wives or hopeful enamored lovers, DiDonato used her richly expressive vocal coloring to portray her heroines not only as women of money and power, but also (and most importantly) as human beings, affected by strong emotions.

Having reserved the darkest of her tones and an impeccable contralto register for Monteverdi’s Ottavia, DiDonato captured this Roman Empress at the peak of her jealousy, while emphasizing her distorted emotional state with a fearfully expressive, sharply phrased recitative. In contrast to Ottavia, Cesti’s tender Orontea boasted gleaming golden tone as she opened her heart to her sleeping beloved, while Porta’s self-denying Ifigenia impressed with subtle pianissimos and melting legato lines.

The most thrilling moment of the program was DiDonato’s spirited rendition of “Da torbida procella” from Orlandini’s opera Berenice. It was the catchy, surprisingly modern and highly illustrative music of this bravura aria (the orchestra did a fantastic job “painting” the storm in Berenice’s amorous heart) that allowed DiDonato to show off her vocal talents in full bloom and portray the Jewish queen intoxicated with abundant passion. Obviously inspired by Orlandini’s uplifting, fast-paced music, the artist was at the top of her game as she fearlessly threw herself into the inhumanly difficult coloratura passages, which she handled with the ease of a true Baroque virtuoso, the noble grandeur of a queen and the sincerity of a loving woman.

Yet more ravishing in her gown, now transformed into a full-skirted crinoline dress, DiDonato dedicated the second half of her recital to royal arias by Hasse, Porta and Handel. The number that earned a special mention was the aria of Persian princess Rossane, “Brilla nell’ alma”, from Handel’s opera Alessandro. Specially composed to ensure the victory of the young opera star Faustina Bordoni over the arrogant and capricious opera queen Francesca Cuzzoni, to DiDonato it was a lot more than a royal aria written by her beloved Handel. Having studied the character of Cuzzoni only too thoroughly for her role in Ralf Pleger’s 2009 film Händel, DiDonato could hardly be happier to root for Cuzzoni’s rival, thus reminding us that no matter how rich or famous one may be, one should never lose his/her face.

Whether she sang onstage surrounded by keen and highly sensitive members of Il Complesso Barocco, or simply enjoyed their performance of Scarlatti and Vivaldi’s music from a specially prepared onstage seat, the only way DiDonato expressed herself as royalty was through her majestic singing. True to herself, this generous Yankee diva (the nickname she had created for herself years ago) was there with the people and for the people, dedicating every moment of her recital to us, her audience.

The artist concluded her recital with three encores, shooting fireworks of impeccable quick notes and perfect trills in Orlandini’s feisty “Col versar, barbaro, il sangue”. Using her encores as a possibility to unwind and add more of her personality to the performance, this Queen of Opera had the time of her life as she danced to the melodious Baroque music, thus proving, once and for all, that the best part of being a queen is the joy of being a human.