It has been five years since mezzo Joyce DiDonato last sang in Amsterdam. In those five years, she won an Emmy Award, headed the cast of countless productions at the Met and Covent Garden, and has been recognized as one of the greatest opera singers of our time by the press and aficionados alike. As she descended the steps of the Concertgebouw’s Great Hall in her crimson Vivienne Westwood frock, she totally looked the part of the diva. However, “Drama Queens”, the title of the concert, certainly does not apply to the artist’s temperament: far from a diva-esque personality, she is a famously generous performer who knows how to build a warm rapport with her audience.

Joyce DiDonato © Josef Fischnaller
Joyce DiDonato
© Josef Fischnaller

What that title refers to is the larger-than-life characters of Baroque opera. The program, based on an album released in late 2012, was a selection of arias by Handel, Monteverdi, Hasse and lesser-known composers like Cesti, Porta and Giacomelli, all portraying queens, empresses and princesses at various stages of despair, ire or occasional joy.

Very few artists can keep an audience captivated with a program consisting mainly of da capo arias by obscure composers. Joyce DiDonato excelled at doing that. All along the evening, she demonstrated that, apart from impeccable musicianship and flawless vocal technique, she also possesses an exquisite sense of style and drama. The acting is subtle, sometimes almost understated, and it is the precision and subtlety of her singing that unleash emotions, from fragility and gracefulness (“Madre diletta” from Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide) to vengefulness and fury (“Morte, col fiero aspetto” from Hasse’s Antonio e Cleopatra).

More than in any of the other pieces, perhaps, her sense of drama was best displayed in the scene “Disprezzata Regina” from Monteverdi’s L’incorronazione di Poppea, in which Empress Ottavia expresses her anguish at seeing her husband Nero abandon her for Poppea. Her voice conveyed both Ottavia’s regal restraint and her humane despair, and the dark colours she found at the bottom of her range left the audience breathless. Surely, any Poppea would find it difficult to regain the limelight after such a heartrending scene from her rival.

The only well-known aria of the program, Cleopatra’s aria “Piangerò la sorte mia” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, got a whole new dimension. The voice’s richness suited so perfectly the character of the legendary queen that one wondered why the role is so often cast with light sopranos. It also emphasized beautifully the contrast between the sense of mourning of the A-section of the aria and the fierce outcry of the B-section, as she swears to haunt the tyrant Tolomeo after her death.

The sad and tender “Madre diletta, abbracciami” by Porta, sung with superb legato and silvery tones, was the emotional climax of the evening. The program ended on a joyful note and more coloratura fireworks with “Brilla nell’alma” from Alessandro, the show-piece Handel composed for Faustina Bordoni’s London debut: in a way, a suitable tribute to a queen of the opera from times past.

The excellent Il Complesso Barroco, conducted by the first violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky, was a perfect match for Ms DiDonato’s vocal virtuosity. The very energetic Mr Sinkovski himself received a loud cheer for his impressive solo in Vivaldi’s concerto KV242.

Between the four encores and final rounds of applause, Ms DiDonato thanked the audience in Dutch and showed how she cares for and cultivates her deservedly growing fan following. She related aspects of her career she spoke of as a privileged journey, including her collaboration with Alan Curtis, with whom she had salvaged long-forgotten Baroque pieces to give them a renewed life. She struck a note of intimate rapport by reminiscing about her Amsterdam debut as a young singer (as Sesto in Giulio Cesare with De Nederlandse Opera in 2001). At this point in her career and fame she is unlikely to return to this particular opera stage, but I certainly hope it won’t be another five years before she performs again at the Concertgebouw.