Joyce DiDonato is a spirit of the bel canto tradition whose lyrical singing in combination with ballsy dramatic force create a renewed direction for the commonplace genre. Digging deep into the early 19th century Italian archives, beneath the surface of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, Ms DiDonato and the Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Maurizio Benini, presented seldom heard works, most of which Ms DiDonato recorded last year, alongside prized standards in one of the greatest renovations of the bel canto genre since the 1950s.

Joyce DiDonato © Simon Pauly
Joyce DiDonato
© Simon Pauly

Straight out of “The Rabbit of Seville”, Rossini recycled his overture to Aureliano in Palmira in future works that would one day accompany the infamous Bugs Bunny cartoon. This happy-go-lucky overture served as the perfect curtain-opener for the night of bel canto arias, as its musical architecture emphasizes hesitation and grandeur. The famous creeping bassline and sighing winds of the opening were placed with an almost naturally occurring rubato by Maestro Benini who has every quality of the ideal opera conductor. Maestro Benini, whose moves are calculated and receptive, may have been in fact born in an opera pit because he commands a magnetic draw that can pull the least rhythmic singer to his tempo.

Ms DiDonato first sang a widely unknown aria “L’amica ancor non torna … Oh, di sorte crudel” from Michele Carafa’s Le nozze di Lammermoor. Ms DiDonato’s voice was rivaled only by that of clarinetist Riccardo Morales who crafted artisan phrases of alluring dolce. In the standard da capo format, Lucia addresses worry as her lover is not returning. The lyrics are interesting because, out of context, she might not be singing about a man, but a friend perhaps, beckoning the “daughter of Heaven” to come down to give her “beloved relief”.

Donizetti’s L’elsir d’amore is one of the most widely staged operas today, and in “Una furtiva lagrima”, our tenor Nemorino is imaging that his love potion works on his victim Adina. Lawrence Brownlee's voice is uncommonly consistent and clear; one does not have to worry the voice will crack or the sound will not project. A great level of boyish excitement in the success of a devilish plot such as this is expected from the dramatic situation, but Mr Brownlee kept his actions few and let his voice speak for itself.

Soprano Laura Claycomb joined Mr Brownlee for the succeeding duet “Prendi, per me sei libero … Or or si spiega”, in which Adina confesses that she does in fact love Nemorino. Stepping in for an indisposed soprano, Ms Claycomb did not project in the hall as well as her fellow singers, and her diction was much less defined. Since the part was not memorized, the love scene turned out to be a visual buzzkill as she devoted half her attention to her lover and half to reading the score.

Presenting the second of the lesser-known arias, Ms DiDonato graced the audience with Giovanni Pacini’s “Ove t’aggiri, o barbaro” from Stella di Napoli. Stella tells of the monstrous side of her lover as she sings, “See me dragged, you ingrate, in chains to execution!” Especially evident in this aria, Ms DiDonato’s trills were masterfully crafted, and one could hear the air pounding against a firm top note to make the thrill both effective and a pleasure to listen to.

Ms Claycomb sang the aria “Eccomi in lieta vest … Oh! quante volte from Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi in a much more comfortable sounding performance before Ms DiDonato entered dressed like a 21st century Romeo. The two duetted in “Ah! mia Giulietta! … Si, fuggire: a noi non rest” with heated sexual tension that left the audience on their toes waiting for the star-crossed lovers to kiss.

Mr Brownlee showcased his stunning pipes once again in “La maîtresse du roi! … Ange si pur” from Donizetti's La favorite, and Ms DiDonato finished the program with “Riedi al soglio” from Rossini's Zelmira, a call to reclaim the throne and join together in embrace. The triumvirate encored with a risque scene from Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, complete with an adorable Rossini-appropriate knee-bounce from Ms DiDonato.