Joyce DiDonato: "Stella di Napoli"
Arias by Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Pacini, Mercadante, Carafa, Valentini. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Lyon, Minasi. Texts and translations. Erato 2564636562
Joyce DiDonato follows up her splendid CD recording Colbran: The Muse with more operatic goodies from early-nineteenth-century Naples in a well-curated recital entitled Stella di Napoli. Lest you think the mezzo-soprano’s severely styled booklet photos suggest a diva by that name, the title refers to an 1845 opera by Giovanni Pacini, whose lively polonaise “Ove t’aggiri” launches the disc. Here DiDonato is in top form, tossing off staccatos, trills, arpeggios, repeated notes and chromatics with astonishing accuracy and energy.
Maria Stuarda’s prayer scene is a reminder of DiDonato’s intensely earnest portrayal of Donizetti’s heroine at the Metropolitan Opera, as she contrasts the queen’s fragile tones with the more forceful voice of her lamenting followers. As a vocal artist, DiDonato seems genuinely transported by bel canto repertoire, bringing an imaginative command and instinctive grasp of the style. With her authoritative handling of long-breathed lines and fluid melodic decoration, the listener always feels in good hands.
So why does this CD feel like homework? It’s as if the cover art were a reflection of the remote, often highly manicured performances. The buoyancy of Zelmira’s jubilant finale, enlivened by Rossini’s witty interjections, is compromised by self-conscious earnestness, while world-premiere recordings of Lucia’s aria from Michele Carafa’s Le Nozze di Lammermoor (on the familiar subject) and a scene from Carlo Valentini’s Il Sonnambulo (the plot is not described) sound dutiful and cold.
Yet it’s fascinating to hear repertoire that contextualizes familiar bel canto pieces, even if DiDonato’s once-sunny timbre occasionally sounds astringent, or incisively over-darkened. Even without plushness in the middle voice, her intelligent pacing and dreamy phrasing highlight Mercadante’s “Se fino al cielo,” from La Vestale, and the singer’s sinewy take on Romeo’s “Deh! tu, bell’anima,” from Bellini’s Capuleti e i Montecchi, is a compelling contrast to more opulent renditions by the likes of Giulietta Simionato, Fiorenza Cossotto or, more recently, Elina Garanča.
The filigree and curling melodies of Bellini’s “Dopo l’oscuro nembo,” an aria from Adelson e Salvini that prefigures Giulietta’s “Oh! quante volte” (also from Capuleti), are beautifully detailed, while Saffo’s suicide finale (from Pacini’s 1840 work) highlights DiDonato’s dramatic commitment and linguistic detail. Throughout the recital, accompaniment figures, harp arpeggios, wind solos and a glass harmonica obbligato are all finely shaped by conductor Riccardo Minasi. Pacini’s Stella di Napoli may not be slated for revival, but DiDonato and Minasi have unearthed some fascinating music, for which they deserve thanks.
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