Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano: Joyce and Tony, Live at Wigmore Hall
Songs and arias by Haydn, Rossini, Santoliquido, de Curtis, Foster, Kern, Nelson, Dougherty, Moross, Bolcom, Villa-Lobos, Rodgers, Berlin and Arlen. Erato 0825646107896
personalities, instinctive musicianship and rock-solid technique of mezzo Joyce DiDonato and pianist Antonio Pappano are amply displayed on this two-CD set, recorded live in September 2014 — the second time the popular mezzo had been invited to open the season at the prestigious Wigmore Hall. She and Pappano are wonderfully matched, showing mastery of many musical styles with a range of emotions and a great sense of humor. The first CD is made up almost entirely of Italian song, the second of classic American and Irish songs, many from Broadway.
The first track is Haydn’s difficult cantata Arianna a Naxos (1790), consisting of two recitative sections, each of which is followed by extended arias. In it, Ariadne arises to find her lover gone, then laments his absence, ending in anger as she slowly realizes she’s been abandoned. The trick of this lengthy cantata is to make all four sections distinct without losing the overall arc of the music and drama. Pappano plays the piano introduction ravishingly, evoking the quiet, slow awakening, as DiDonato begins the first recitative, “Teseo mio ben.” DiDonato supplies what the piece demands — pure tone and a full range of emotional power and vocal color. She is particularly effective in the final aria, “Ah! che morir vorrei,” moving the character from dignified acceptance to anguish and, finally, to outrage in the final presto moment, which provides vocal and histrionic thrills. DiDonato beautifully expresses anger and agitation without sobbing or in any other way distorting the vocal line.
Next are two Rossini songs, the limpid “Beltà crudele” and the familiar “La danza,” for which DiDonato’s remarkable vocal agility comes to the fore, accompanied by Pappano’s speed and precision on the piano. These are followed by the rarely heard four-song cycle by Francesco Santoliquido, I Canti della Sera (1908), which is not highly regarded by critics. Nevertheless, DiDonato sings it with Pucciniesque passion and sultry, generous tone, making the most of these songs of nature and lost love.
The first disc ends with perhaps the best moment of the recital — a deeply felt rendition of Ernesto de Curtis’s “Non ti scordar di me,” to which Pappano and DiDonato bring a palpable sense of longing and desire. The second disc contains a few too many jazzy American songs. The selections work best when the artists are allowed to unleash their wonderful senses of humor — Celius Dougherty’s “Love in the Dictionary” (literally setting the dictionary definitions of love to music), “Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” from Showboat, Bolcolm’s bouncy “Amor” and one of the encores, a delightful “I Love a Piano.” Also very affecting is the ditty “Lovely Jimmie,” by Havelock Nelson, a nod to DiDonato’s Irish roots, sung with simplicity and heart.
The only real misstep — and it’s a big one — is a turgid David Krane arrangement of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” which stretches and distorts the gorgeously simple melody beyond recognition. And it’s not well served by DiDonato’s occasional tendency to go sharp in her upper range. That aside, many pleasures can be found on the second CD, especially when the artists have the courage to give their “takes” on familiar standards. There is great singing and playing in Kern’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” Rodgers’s “My Funny Valentine” and especially “Over the Rainbow,” all infused with a sound and style specific to the personalities of these artists. These songs have clearly been approached as if they were being sung for the first time, and the result is moving and refreshing.
I do wish the recording had captured more of Pappano and DiDonato’s banter, described with delight by people who were in the audience for this recital. We get a bit of it on the recording, and it’s so enjoyable that you’ll long for more. —Henson Keys
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