Recordings > Editor's Choice

Joyce DiDonato: "Drama Queens"

spacer Opera arias by Cesti, Giacomelli, Handel, Hasse, Haydn, Keiser, Monteverdi, Orlandini and Porta. Il Com­plesso Barocco, Curtis. Texts and translations. Virgin Classics 5099960265425

Royal Treatment

Joyce DiDonato and Alan Curtis’s recital of obscure Baroque repertory features some spectacular singing and playing.

DramaQueenCD

As the once-mighty flood of aria albums on CD has dwindled to a trickle, most of the remaining new releases on major labels have a number of things in common. This new Virgin Classics recital from Joyce DiDonato and Alan Curtis is representative in many of these ways: it has impeccable musicological credentials in the editions used and in the period-instrument accompaniment; it has a very generous playing time as it spans decades of obscure Baroque repertoire; and it has the sort of deeply stupid title that marketing people like to pretend is essential nowadays. Above all, as we have come to expect from artists who still get to make records, it features some spectacular singing.

Whenever an aria by Reinhard Keiser (1674–1739) turns up, it seems that Keiser is the ripest candidate for modern revival. His music is inventive, his chromaticism is attractive, and he writes operas on subjects, such as Julius Caesar and Orpheus, that would be a natural fit for opera companies planning thematic seasons. Then the recollection comes that so much of Keiser's music is lost. DiDonato and Curtis offer a gem, "Geloso sospetto," from Octavia . The accompaniment consists of nothing but a bassoon ensemble and continuo (no strings). The performance here is a reminder that, for all of the many benefits of rhythmic flexibility in Baroque music, the occasional piece responds beautifully to a performance in strict, unyielding tempo depicting the implacable workings of fate. It's an entirely different sort of musical expression, and DiDonato further reminds us that singers from this period were prized just as much for their awesome low notes as for their high ones. Giovanni Porta, a contemporary of Keiser's, wrote thirty operas but merits only a paragraph in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera. The performance here of an aria from his Ifigenia in Aulide features violin playing as keen to portray the character as the singer proves herself to be, and singer and conductor work hard to make the silences as expressive as the notes . The selections on the album are not presented in chronological order, but anyone who listens to them that way will have no doubt that Antonio Cesti (1623–69) is an important and representative figure in the development of opera. In a substantial scene from Cesti's Orontea, DiDonato shows a beautiful trill, a willingness to bend pitch skillfully for expressive purposes, and perhaps her finest work in mining both the sound and the sense of the text . It is ironic that the very celebrity that allows her to make a recording like this one means that DiDonato has to sing in houses too big for a performance this finely calibrated.

Curtis and DiDonato have waded into a musicological swamp with the aria "Sposa, son disprezzata." Long attributed to Vivaldi, and recorded as a Vivaldi piece by Cecilia Bartoli on an early album, this piece is actually by Geminiano Giacomelli. The aria was poached and altered by Vivaldi for use in his own opera Bajazet. Bartoli made amends when she recorded the original Giacomelli version for her 2009 Sacrificium album. DiDonato sings the Vivaldi version under Giacomelli's name. It's a very persuasive performance, with some treacherously long phrases easily taken in one breath , some utterly natural ornamentation in the da capo, and a perfect mixture of defiance and helplessness. Elsewhere on the disc there is a preponderance of barn burners, bowing to the reality that singers are expected to hit every pitch out of the ballpark these days. Orlandini's "Col versar, barbaro, il sangue" is one of the better flaming arias among the rarities. Handel's aria for Rossane in Alessandro, "Brilla nell'alma," gets a scorching performance of tremendous accomplishment , one that hints at how difficult it is. It's instructive to hear how Sandrine Piau in this aria is just as fleet but also manages to characterize the figuration as shivers of delight. DiDonato also gives an over-the-top version of one of Handel's arias for Alcina. It is hard to fathom the musical reasons for singing the A section so fast and the B section so slow. Curtis completely loses the sarabande feeling in the latter; obviously he does so on purpose, since he is highly attuned to siciliennes and dance influences elsewhere.

There was a time when an album of so much unknown repertoire would have been considered risky. Now, in an over-documented age with many dozens of recordings of every famous aria, the risk is in competing with great singers of every era. There are only two standard items in this recital. Ottavia's entrance scene from L'Incoronazione di Poppea gets an unremittingly intense performance, one that draws the listener through each phrase in a gripping, confrontational manner. (Curtis's continuo players are real partners here, but without pulling focus.) And DiDonato's "Piangerò la sorte mia," from Handel's Giulio Cesare, is fabulous . It is deeply personal without being self-indulgent, it has supreme authority in ornamentation and a cadenza that sounds as if Handel wrote it, and it has devastating mastery of vibrato-less tone from mezzo, flutist and violinists alike. It represents a new career peak for this singer. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3