Joyce DiDonato: "In War and Peace"
Arias by Handel, Jommelli, Leo, Monteverdi and Purcell. Il Pomo d’Oro, Emelyanychev. Erato 0190295928469. Texts and translations
A SKEPTIC COULD
be forgiven for looking askance at the literature accompanying Joyce DiDonato’s new recital of Baroque arias. The CD booklet summons an array of witnesses—prison inmates, Riccardo Muti, a Mideast refugee, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—to answer the question “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?” DiDonato, meanwhile, posits the disc as her own response. Declaring herself “a citizen of the world in 2016,” she extols “the power of music to tip the scales bravely toward peace.” It’s hard to imagine that a mere CD could fulfill such a messianic purpose.
But the first cut, “Scenes of horror, scenes of woe,” from Handel’s Jephtha, gives a sense of what she’s up to. I had last heard this aria in Susan Gritton’s trim, well-mannered reading on the Sixteen’s recent recording of the complete oratorio. DiDonato’s version is something else entirely. The sharp attack of her singing gives it an almost shocking immediacy; the hammer-stroke articulation of the line “rising from the shades below” makes it seem as if the “scenes of horror” were indeed dredged up from hell. The barbarities she describes, rather than transpiring in the conveniently distant past, could be in Aleppo or at Pulse in Orlando. By making the aria so visceral, DiDonato tells us that the act of performing music—and of listening to it—needn’t be a purely aesthetic endeavor but a means of understanding the world we live in.
Dido’s lament in this context becomes the plaint of a victim of the martial impulse; DiDonato ends it on a thread of straightened tone that makes it seem like the Carthaginian queen is vanishing before our ears. A lesser-known Purcell aria, “Oh! Lead me to some peaceful gloom,” from Bonduca, or the British Heroine, occupies similar affective territory: as the heroine’s daughter, the princess Bonvica, prepares herself for death, she contemplates a realm where she can “never think of war again.” By contrast, “Augeletti che cantata,” from Handel’s Rinaldo, describes a landscape of bucolic peace, the “little birds” of the aria’s title brilliantly embodied by recorder player Anna Fusek. DiDonato’s singing here matches Fusek’s accomplishment: exactly articulated trills are firmly embedded in the musical line; the ebb and flow of vibrato shades the musical argument; a hint of a “tear” in the voice suggests that, even within this momentary idyll, the burdens of war are near at hand.
The link between the CD’s theme and its contents isn’t consistently apprehensible, but the program has a recognizable emotional arc, and it ends—with Cleopatra’s “Da tempeste,” from Giulio Cesare—on a note of jubilation that caps DiDonato’s argument for the therapeutic powers of music. The entire recital benefits from the American mezzo’s warmth of tone and prodigious technique—fully expected but nonetheless welcome. (The pinging staccato arpeggios in “Par che di giubilo,” from Niccolò Jommelli’s Attilio Regolo, all but defy credibility.) Under Maxim Emelyanychev, the musicians of the Italian period-instrument orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro play with vigor, commitment and emotional specificity, co-navigators on DiDonato’s voyage of exploration. —Fred Cohn