Joyce DiDonato performed her second of four concerts at Carnegie Hall this season. Just over a week ago, the superstar mezzo-soprano performed on the same stage in the title role of Handel’s Alcina as part of her world tour with the English Concert. In the days between her two recent Carnegie performances, she has been a very busy bee, giving masterclasses in New York and then jetting off to sing the National Anthem before the seventh game of the World Series. Her solo recital at Carnegie “A Journey Through Venice,” is one she has presented and recorded live at Wigmore Hall in 2006, albeit with a few changes. Joyce’s new “Journey” includes arias by Vivaldi and an extended scene from Rossini’s Otello, in addition to the songs by Rossini, Fauré, Head, and Hahn.

Joyce DiDonato © Simon Pauly
Joyce DiDonato
© Simon Pauly

Though DiDonato is an incredibly versatile artist, her performance on Tuesday evening reaffirmed that she is, above all, one of the leading interpreters of Rossini today. The three songs she selected from the composer’s Péches de vieilles describe the coquettish Anzoleta, who watches her lover Momolo in a gondola race. She brought each of these pieces vividly to life while also showing the short “journey” the character Anzoleta takes as she anxiously watching the competition from the sidelines. (In fact, it was almost as if we were watching the singer herself cheering the Kansas City Royals at the World Series.) In the second half of the program, she performed Desdemona’s “Assisa al piè d’un salice” (Willow Song) from Otello. Though the scena does not culminate in a cabaletta full of vocal pyrotechnics, it is dramatically demanding. Her humble Anzoleta and brooding Desdemona were the best parts of the recital.

The mezzo-soprano described to the audience that Michael Head’s Three Songs of Venice was her first encounter with “modern” music as an undergraduate at Wichita State University. Though first terrified at the seeming complexity of the music, she explained that these songs were a “ticket to somewhere out of Wichita,” and that they allowed her to experience the transformative power of music. In “The Gondolier,” her haunting cries “Ohé, ohé, ohé,” conjured up what she described as the “foggy”, “dirty” Venice that the tourists don’t see. In “St Mark’s Square”, the accompaniment flutters like flocks of pigeons.

The other repertoire on the program, by Vivaldi, Fauré, and Hahn, was performed well, though was not quite as exciting. The Vivaldi arias, though lovely, proved to be a slow start to the evening, and were a bit of a confusing selection. Though Vivaldi is a Venetian composer, the arias she includes on this “Journey to Venice” are two from Ercole sul Termodonte, composed for Rome. The arias do make poetic and musical reference to water, but so do lots of other arias by the same composer that are much more exciting for a recital – especially as opening numbers. Still, her command of this repertoire is almost as strong as her fluency with the music of Rossini and his contemporaries, and it was a pleasure to hear these otherwise rarely heard pieces.

DiDonato did not seem as at ease with the Fauré or Hahn songs as the other repertoire on the program. The Fauré was a bit stiff, almost as if she suddenly realized that her solo recital was being broadcast live around the world and got nervous. This set of songs dragged a bit, and left me feeling cool towards her and the music. The Hahn songs were a bit warmer – and not just because she changed into a scarlet, sequined gown for the second half when she performed them. Yet, because I have been spoiled by Susan Graham’s performances of these same songs in recital, no one for me can being to compare, not even La Joyce.

The opportunity to hear a consummate artist like DiDonato is always a rewarding experience. But, in the time since she first took audiences on a “Journey through Venice,” she has become increasingly sought after for her performances of Baroque and bel canto repertoire. Creating a new recital program is not a fun task, particularly when you’re jet setting around the world. A more successful recital program would play to her strengths in terms of repertoire, and perhaps offer a bit more coloratura. Otherwise, some of that slow, Venetian “water music” might rock you gently to sleep.

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