A Year With the Queens

F. PAUL DRISCOLL speaks with Joyce DiDonato about how Donizetti's Mary Stuart fits into the bel canto canon and the year-long preparation behind her thrilling new album of baroque rarities, Drama Queens.

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DiDonato in a promotional photo for Drama Queens
© Josef Fischnaller 2013
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OPERA NEWS: So, when you're looking at the score of Maria Stuarda for the first time, what is it about the music on the page that allows you as a bel canto singer to immediately identify it as Donizetti, as opposed to Rossini or Bellini? 

JOYCE DIDONATO: Oh, that's a good question. I think when I look at it on the page, it goes a little bit closer to Rossini than to Bellini because of the form. Like Maria's opening aria, for example, she's got the cantilena section followed by the big cabaletta. But let me preface that by saying I'm not a musicologist, so I may not give the most cohesive answer about this. The notes on the page appear to be not so far from Rossini.

But the second I start to sing it, it feels very different. It feels slightly heavier. I will look at the melody, I'll look at the accompaniment, and it appears to look like Rossini. I'll start singing it, and it feels all of a sudden like I've started singing Verdi. That's kind of the best way I can describe it, because it seems to want to take on a heaviness that is not written. I mean, Donizetti is not writing fortissimo — the lines don't quite go as far as Verdi necessarily. So, I find it a challenge to make sure that I keep it closer into the vocal lines of Rossini.

What's interesting about Maria Stuarda in particular is that it seems to be going along formulaically as a bel canto piece. Then, all of a sudden, in the last twenty minutes of the piece, it takes on and evolves into this completely different style. The idea of the cabaletta is sort of abandoned, and we get this nearly through-composed piece where one scene sort of flows into the next and they're away from the set numbers. That's very interesting to me, and I think that sets Stuarda apart from the rest of the pieces. Donizetti seems to get this momentum in the second act that goes into a place and a formula that is really unique — certainly unique to Rossini or Bellini.

ON: The person who is most celebrated for singing this particular opera in the United States is Beverly Sills, who was definitely a coloratura soprano.

JD: Yes.

ON: In England, the person who's most associated with the role is Janet Baker, a mezzo. Is there a different version? Are you singing transpositions? I don't know that much about what edition is being used at the Met or what you used at Houston Grand Opera. Are you singing exactly what Sills sang?

JD: No, not exactly. [Laughs] We're using ... I don't even know if it's an official edition, because I don't know if it was ever printed. But we're using the version that Charles Mackerras and Janet Baker used with English National Opera. So, there are a few scenes, which were transposed down, in particular the prayer. The prayer scene and the final scene are both down a half-step. But this is a practice that even Donizetti used in his day, where keys were transposed around. But we're singing it essentially as Janet Baker did at ENO.

ON: With the exception that you're singing in Italian.

JD: Exactly, yes. So it's kind of new in that way, yeah. [Laughs

ON: Is there another role in the Donizetti–Queen repertoire that attracts you as a singer?

JD: Well, I've sung Elizabeth. And I could certainly see going back to Elizabeth at some point. Although, having sung Maria, I definitely find her more sympathetic and more identifiable. I think Giovanna Seymour is an extraordinary role, and I've done extracts of that. Actually, one of my scenes in Santa Fe as an apprentice was the big duet with Enrico. So I could see moving into that at some point as well. But not in terms of Bolena or Devereux ... no. I think Maria is the right fit.

ON: Let's talk about the Drama Queens album, which is highly unusual repertoire. I will tell you that there are some composers on there I had never heard of.

JD: [Laughs] Likewise.

ON: How did that program come together, and how long did it take?

JD: This took — from when the idea was born to when we had our final repertoire — a good portion of a year, I think. I worked a little bit backwards on this one, knowing that I wanted to go back into the Baroque world and that I didn't want to do just a single composer. I had done a Handel disc, and I wanted to come back and explore a wider swath of compositions and characters. 

When I was thinking, 'Okay, so, where do I begin? What's going to be my angle to come at this?' I started naming some of the titles and pieces I wanted to do. And Cleopatra was high on the list; revisiting Alcina was high on the list. And I started looking at the list and saying, "Wow, these are really strong, powerful women. Wow, these are queens." And it occurred to me, 'Ah, they're Drama Queens.' And literally the title came to me almost before any repertoire, other than I knew I wanted to sing 'Piangero.' I was being very selfish — I just wanted to sing that piece.

And so, I was talking at great length with [Complesso Barocco conductor and founder] Alan Curtis, and I told the title to him. I think smoke came out of the top of his head. He was just really turned on by the title. One of the things I talked about with Virgin was that we wanted to have some unknown repertoire in there as well. And, again, this is Alan's Nirvana place, you know — prima donnas, finding this music, having to go into a library. 

So Alan did a lot of the early work of bringing the scores [to me]. He was in Berkeley, and he looks up on the fourth dusty shelf, and he sees this thick piece of spine that says, "Berenice." And he went, "Well, I have no idea of any opera that's ever been named Berenice, but I know she was a Jewish queen, so let's see what that is." So he opened it up. This is not even a catalogued opera. So nobody has heard of it, let alone performed it in the last century. From that opera, we found those two great arias by Orlandini.

Later, while I was in Baden-Baden for the Ariodante tour, he brought me the scores. Then later in Milan he came to visit me, and we sat at the harpsichord and we spent hours and hours and hours going through this huge pile of music. It was very obvious when something was just not worth our while, and it was very obvious when something was interesting. 

Then there was also this stack where we thought, 'Well, this is a manuscript that we can't even read, but it looks interesting.' So we took about six or seven pieces to send to the copier, just to get a better look.  I'd say we kept two or three of those. There was the Keiser, "Lasciami piangere," that I was not convinced of. But Alan said, "Joyce, really? Come on, I really want you to give this a shot. I think I can really hear this in your voice." Sure enough, I kind of fell in love with it.

Then there was "Madre dilette, abbracciami" by Giovanni Porta. I didn't even hear it — I just looked at it on the page and I said, "Alan, this is our piece." And he's like, "Ah, I don't know, Joyce, I don't know." I convinced him on that one. The Cesti, for example — I think that's one of the most sublime things I've ever done and it just came out of nowhere. 

Then there's that strange, bizarre bassoon aria by Keiser, "Geloso sospetto." We were both excited about the idea of just dealing with five Baroque bassoons. And, you know, I don't think that's the greatest piece of music ever written, but I think it's interesting to go into that sound world and to see how a composer of that time would play with texture. We know what Wagner can do with an orchestra, but, when your resources are a bit more limited — as in the world of the Baroque — how did a composer play around with a sound world?

So, there's a lot going on, on the disc. One of the things I was hoping for was that we would find this really wide palette of color and emotion. I think we found just that. That's what is exciting to me about it — you can see how far they were willing to go in terms of emotional expression.

ON: The disc does bring the listener into touch with the spontaneity, for lack of a better word, of that time in music when operas or oratorios were like fireworks. They were not meant to last one-hundred years. They were something that was sort of shot off, and it was a piece for a particular occasion, or it was something that was very specifically tailored to an artist or an audience. The idea that you can go back into it and make it live again is deeply moving.

JD: Yes, I agree completely. And I love that you say that, because the other thing is a lot of these pieces — the Alcina, the Cleopatra — were especially written for the prima donnas of the day. And you're right — they were very specific and they were meant to be showpieces. To come back three-hundred years later, four-hundred years later, and be able to feel in a way like these could have been written for me, and that I could find my own really personal stamp on them .... I mean, the "Disprezzata Regina" ... I sing that and I'm living it, as if it had been written for me, as if I'd sat there with Monteverdi and said, "Ooh, could we try this," like I do with Jake [Heggie]. 

That is extraordinary to me. It gives me chills that, in a way, I can connect to something across the centuries and feel as if it's being born today. It's very exciting and humbling.

ON: The difference is your generation of artists and the generation that came before you are so lucky, because when you do something with a composer like Jake Heggie, it can be documented in a way that these singers' artistry never was —  you have the advantage of recording through DVD or CD.

JD: Yeah. Actually, Jake has said this. I did a recording with him while I was out in San Francisco. We recorded these Camille Claudel songs that he wrote. They're something really special. But one of the things Jake said was "You know, I've got to get my music recorded, because, if I don't, it's as if it didn't exist." I think that's what you're saying about these Orlandini pieces or the Keiser or Cesti. We don't really know it's out there until it becomes physical. So, while I don't know if that was my strong intention when I started, now that I finished the album, it's like, "Wow, so now these pieces exist. They really exist." That's exciting. spacer 

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