It was a touching moment when an overwhelmed Joyce DiDonato re-entered the stage after her fourth encore and covered her face with her hands for a few moments, not sure what to do in response to the unceasing applause. Being a jovial self-styled “Yankee Diva”, she soon found the right line to end a memorable evening with style, “let’s all go to sleep with crying and dying once more” – which meant that “Lasciami piangere” from Reinhard Keiser’s Fredegunda was going be the fifth and very last encore and a welcome repetition of her first.

Joyce DiDonato © Sheila Rock
Joyce DiDonato
© Sheila Rock

This was not the only obscure composer that DiDonato chose, though her aria recital of Baroque queens and princesses started quite conventionally with Cesti’s classic “Intorno all’idol mio”. But whereas this piece from Orontea is often given in a rather slow tempo, DiDonato and Il Complesso Barocco opted for a brisker version to accommodate the more dramatic part of the aria that is usually omitted.

“Disprezzata regina”, from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, sees an openly betrayed Ottavia let out her jealousy and bitter humiliation, and was seamlessly followed by Giacomelli’s “Sposa, son disprezzata”, a work that is often wrongly attributed to Vivaldi because of its use in his popular pasticcio Bajazet, which contains a collection of arias from other sources. DiDonato made both sound vivid and even quite modern, in the best sense of the word; while it is not surprising that human emotions and afflictions haven’t changed much over the centuries, the fact that the perfect rendition of pieces of that age can still move an audience to be totally immersed is remarkable, especially when the singer is not aided by the visuals of a (hopefully) adequate opera production. That said, the concrete and partly mirror-covered cube that forms the backdrop for the house’s current production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide was a nice contrast to the diva’s high piled-up hair and extravagant bright red robe. While her art speaks for itself and doesn’t need a Vivienne Westwood gown that can be changed from cul-de-Paris to hoop skirt and other variations, it certainly fitted both the repertory and the house, and was the icing on the cake in this Baroque Gesamtkunstwerk.

The first half closed with tempestuous coloratura in Berenice’s “Da torbida procella” from Orlandini’s opera of the same name. Alan Curtis, founder of Il Complesso Barocco and conductor on DiDonato’s Drama Queens album, discovered it in a library – and judging from this and another aria given as an encore, one can congratulate him on finding such a gem, as well as DiDonato for bringing this Jewish queen to life.

The diva’s backup for this evening was, however, Dmitry Sinkovsky, whose direction from the violin was exemplary. Despite total dedication to letting DiDonato shine and anticipation of every nuance in her singing, he made a strong impression of his own by making Il Complesso Barocco her equal partner, even going as far as to have DiDonato standing among the ensemble. It was an ensemble effort that seemed to be rooted in passion for the music and respect and admiration for each other: unlike other recitals, where the soloist usually withdraws for the orchestral interludes, DiDonato took a seat in the middle of the stage, visibly enjoying Scarlatti’s sinfonia from Tolomeo ed Alessandro, Handel’s passacaglia from Radamisto and ballet music from Gluck’s Armide. The only time Il Complesso Barocco had the stage all to themselves was for a spectacular showcase during the first half of the evening: in Vivaldi’s violin concerto Per Pisendel, Sinkovsky stunned the audience with a performance where he and his instrument were one – with the bow flying over the strings and his long hair in every direction, one found it hard not to think of Paganini.

Fuelled by the audience’s excitement, the night’s protagonists even trumped their previous strong performances after the intermission. Two Cleopatra arias, “Morte col fiero aspetto” by Hasse and “Piangerò la sorte mia” by Handel, were followed by the angelic “Madre diletta, abbracciami” in which Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide comforts her mother in the face of her own imminent death. The official program ended with Handel’s ode to joy “Brilla nell’alma” from Alessandro where DiDonato’s silvery voice glittered like the sun on the blue of the sea she was singing about.

This night, for once, no-one associated “Drama Queens” with desperate housewives or girly pop culture; it was an unforgettable concert where the monarchy on the theatrical stage was happily restored – singing and playing could hardly have been more regal.

*****