There is a sure guarantee with Joyce DiDonato that any album she releases will appeal to both the ears and the brain, but with her most recent venture, In War and Peace, she has outdone herself. It’s common knowledge now that DiDonato hit upon the theme in the aftermath of the Paris attacks last year; already in the middle of selecting Baroque arias for a new project with Erato, she pitched a new idea to the company: a juxtaposition of chaos and harmony on one disc, an exploration of two fundamental aspects of humanity via Handel, Purcell and one or two lesser-known composers. Several weeks after the album’s release, she brought the period ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro to the Barbican to present the project beyond the confines of the recording studio as part of a global tour.

Joyce DiDonato and Manuel Palazzo © Mark Allan | Barbican
Joyce DiDonato and Manuel Palazzo
© Mark Allan | Barbican

DiDonato deserves credit for bringing an unusual level of drama to a concert recital. One entered in darkness. Smoke wafted over the stage, and DiDonato sat motionless on a rear podium, magnificent in a silver Vivienne Westwood dress. Her recital was characterised by an intense physicality, making use of the whole platform, winding her way through the orchestra and bringing Dido, Agrippina et al to life as in the opera house. Ralf Pleger, directing the evening, made full use of vivid lighting and video effects, a blood red coating at the back of the hall here, murky green glaze across the stage there – a combination of effects that heightened the potency of DiDonato’s performance. The concept was weakened by the insertion of Manuel Palazzo, a highly capable dancer, but whose topless exertions were an unwelcome distraction that added very little. At times his greatest service was assisting DiDonato in putting on another layer of clothing. It didn’t help that the space at the front of the platform was uncomfortably small and seemed to confine what he could feasibly do. Nor was the stage as a whole particularly elevated by the presence of a clothing rack at the back; while it is an admirable principle that glorious garments should grace a coat hanger, more subtle means would have been ideal.

The main event, though, was splendid. DiDonato’s recital was characterised by a concrete appreciation and sensitivity to the text, injecting each aria with a panoply of emotion. Her vocal range is both wide and reliable. In her first aria “Scenes of horror, scenes of woe” from Jephtha, she showed off a lower register with bite and grit, drenching the word “horror” with an oily blackness. On the other end, the top of the voice is almost unimpeachable, fiery coloratura crackling out in “Par che di giubilo” from Attilio Regolo by Jommelli (a gem of a rediscovery), voice skipping up and down with stylish virtuosity. One particular highlight was the opening to Gesualdo’s Tristis est anima mea, originally a choral piece; DiDonato began with a first note that quivered and blossomed, a silvery gleam that floated and hovered in the air. There was a thread of artistry and confidence of technique that ran through the evening, be it in the heart-felt, tremulous “Lascia ch’io pianga”, sung with an austere purity that grew in strength, or the saucy trills of “Da tempeste il legno infranto”.

Joyce DiDonato © Mark Allan | Barbican
Joyce DiDonato
© Mark Allan | Barbican

For strength of line, DiDonato was at her strongest in“Dido’s Lament”, where the voice soared and sobbed; her understanding of character was particularly fine here in her embodiment of tragic, betrayed nobility. The only point where I was not totally convinced was in “They tell us that you mighty powers” from The Indian Queen, where DiDonato did not seem quite as confident in the music, and it did not seem to be an entirely comfortable match. In “Prendi quel ferro, o barbara!” from Leo’s Andromaca, another rarity that on the strength of this aria deserves a full performance, DiDonato filed her voice down to the finest edge, but projection was of such a calibre that there was no difficulty in hearing her.

Il Pomo d’Oro under Maxim Emelyanychev were sensitive accompanists, but matched DiDonato for intensity of performance; vibrant and flashy in moments of activity, earthy and solemn in moments of reflection. DiDonato’s project is a worthy one, albeit of a scale and optimism that is somewhat unrealistic. But if we, pausing briefly to enjoy good music, can be encouraged to reflect and take a breath, it’s no bad thing... especially if it’s music-making of DiDonato’s quality.