Joyce Didonato had the public of the Concertgebouw wrapped around her finger from the moment she entered the Great Hall and jokingly said that Venice had nothing on Amsterdam.  The comment struck a chord: we, proud Amsterdammers, secretly want to believe so. As a source of inspiration to poets and musicians, the Serenissima however wins hands down. This invitation to journey through three centuries of music inspired by Venice was simply irresistible and it is with palpable delight that this chauvinistic Amsterdammer, and some fifteen hundred others, followed our guide.

Joyce DiDonato © Simon Pauly
Joyce DiDonato
© Simon Pauly

It is of course quite impossible not to be charmed by Ms. DiDonato’s endearing stage presence and consummate acting skills. What makes her performance most exceptional however is the way she is able to breathe life into a scene or text, just by vocal prowess. The total control she appears to have of her instrument, the complex palette of colours and dynamics make her storytelling nothing less than captivating. In a varied program of arias and art songs covering such different styles and moods as the one she sang last Monday, this artistry is invaluable.

The program started with Antonio Vivaldi, one of Venice’s most celebrated children. The Red Priest certainly wrote enough flamboyantly virtuosic pieces from which to pick an easy jaw-dropping affect at the start, but Ms. DiDonato was bold enough to open with two more subtle numbers from a little-known opera, Ercole su’l Termodonte.  The whispering ripples of “Onde chiare che sussurrate” were the occasion for refined ornamentations.

Gabriel Fauré’s Cinq mélodies de Venise were partially composed during a stay in Venice and reflect his fascination for the city. The French language does not perhaps come to Ms. DiDonato as naturally as Italian - or even the Venetian dialect if we judge from later parts in the program. Her diction and phrasing, initially clear and precise at the beginning of the cycle appeared to somewhat blur in later parts. Still, the way she brought colour to each of Verlaine’s verses, or even word, to convey mood and meaning was admirable.

Rossini’s music is, together with the baroque repertoire, what propelled  the American mezzo to stardom. She made a delectable showpiece of La Regata Veneziana, one of the composer’s most famous péchés de vieillesse. As Anzoleta, the coquettish and self-conscious belle who cheers at Momolo, her gondolier lover, during the city’s famous boat race, she sparkled. The public of the Concertgebouw just could not refrain their enthusiasm and started clapping between numbers of the set.

The mood changed dramatically with a heart-rendering willow song from Rossini’s Otello: the way she shaded the last stanza left no doubt in the listener’s mind that this Desdemona knows too well that the tragedy is imminent. David Zobel, an excellent accompanist throughout the evening, accomplished a real tour de force during this aria, conveying at the piano the atmosphere of this aria which normally requires harp and orchestra.

Michael Head, a composer unknown to me, wrote Three Songs of Venice in 1974 for Dame Janet Baker.  Ms DiDonato told the audience how discovering this cycle as a young college student who had never travelled out of the Mid-West was a revelation. Full of the sounds of water rippling against keels, gondoliers’s echoing calls and pigeons’wings flapping on Saint Mark’s Square, these simple melodious songs proved pleasantly atmospheric.

From there, we were transported to the world of Reynaldo Hahn’s Venezia, a cycle that, in spite of being composed on verses in the Venetian dialect, has an unmistakably belle époque feel: Ms DiDonato’s vivid interpretation of “L’avertimento” (“the warning”) and “Che pecà” (“What a shame”) made one think that these salon pieces wouldn’t have been totally out of place in a Parisian cabaret of the turn of the century.

The  encores were demonstrative of the generosity of the artist: a virtuosic final rondo from La Donna del Lago that sent the public roaring, a breathtaking “Morgen!” that left some teary-eyed, and finally, “Over the rainbow”: an invitation to Kansas. “You don’t have to stay long !”, joked the American star mezzo. With DiDonato as a guide, we’d gladly follow anywhere.