Who’d have thought you could get so much mileage out of a tomato? But in the hands – quite literally – of Joyce DiDonato, the lone specimen found bizarrely dangling from an otherwise exiguous and rather bedraggled bunch of flowers left on the platform steps by a female fan at the end of tonight’s concert took on a life of its own, prompting stories galore from the mezzo diva du jour, a flawless mid-coloratura retrieval from the floor where it had fallen during the first encore, much throwing in the air and catching both by her and the very game conductor – Riccardo Minasi – on whose score she deposited it afterwards, not to mention a delicious piece of pantomime when he pocketed it to the diva’s horror, and was obliged to place it on the first cellos’ desk instead. I shouldn’t think anybody has witnessed quite this much creative fun with fruit and veg since Callas and the carrots, many, many moons ago.
Of course, by this stage of the game, the audience was in transports, pleasured to almost chronic excess by an adroitly organised programme of bel canto plums of varying degrees of unfamiliarity, padded out with reasonably apropos purely orchestral filler in judicious proportions. The latter – including the overtures to Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (aka. that of Il barbiere di Siviglia), Bellini’s Norma and Verdi’s Alzira – were given very spirited readings under Sig. Minasi’s baton-free direction, which was by turns fiery and vaguely camp, as if Muti and Bonynge were fighting for musical control of his body. And there was some excellent playing from the pit-band of the Opéra de Lyon, especially the winds, and in particular the clarinet, Jean Michel Bertelli, an artist to his fingertips. Still, no-one came to hear them, or the conductor, or even – as I often suspect – the scheduled musical programme: they came, filling the hall to capacity, to hear Joyce DiDonato sing. And in this, they were clearly not disappointed.
As it happens, I’ve long thought that, considered purely as a mezzo instrument, Ms. DiDonato’s voice is just about the least of her numerous accomplishments. Now, I wouldn’t for a moment deny or deprecate her irresistibly infectious manner, her supreme skill as a communicator, her remarkable expressive powers, her theatrical conviction or her technical address. But to my ears the voice lacks both warmth and juice, sounding wiry to the point of hard-edged and brittle at the top of its range, and afflicted throughout with a tight, fluttery vibrato that both robs the sound of colour and can end up perilously close to tremulousness. Nor is the breath line ideally long, all sorts of stratagems being used to disguise the numerous breaks the mezzo is obliged to insert, and which regrettably often lead to inaudibility at the ends of lines as the breath support simply pegs out before the music does (particularly noticeable, this, in the aria “Par che mi dica ancora” from Donizetti’s 1829 Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, where none of the long opening lines reached a fully-voiced conclusion). Marilyn Horne she is not (nor Elina Garanca, for that matter).There is also the fact that, as tonight, she increasingly sings what are pretty unambiguously written as soprano roles, where, even if the range is feasible for her, the tessitura is rather less so: so it isn’t to my mind remotely coincidental that the one item tonight where Ms DiDonato’s voice sounded at its absolute best, least pressurised and most easefully expressive was Giunia’s coloratura-free preghiera from Mercadante’s 1840 La vestale, which was written for the mezzo-soprano Eloisa Buccini and not Adelina Spech-Salvi as the opera’s soprano star role Emilia (pace Christopher Cook’s programme note, which asserts that it was).
Still, I’m aware of talking heresy here, at least amongst those who never heard Horne and Montserrat Caballé sing Rossini live in their contemporaneous primes; or have never heard Cecilia Gasdia’s Zelmira, or Mariella Devia’s Elisabetta (sopranos both, please note: and just because Isabella Colbran’s voice darkened with age and lost the high C is no reason to assume she ended up sounding like a mezzo by the time her husband Rossini wrote Semiramide for her in 1823. After all, Domingo has by now lost every one of a tenor’s high notes, but still doesn’t sound remotely like a baritone). I may as well confess that I didn’t much care for Ms. DiDonato’s Maria Stuarda at the ROH a few months ago either, where the two principal female roles were cast the wrong way round – Elisabetta’s the mezzo role, Maria’s the pure high soprano – and which ended up fighting against the sense both of the roles and of the music (about the unspeakably pitiful and disgustingly cheap staging itself I decline to comment). So tonight’s account of Zelmira’s rondo-finale “Riedi al soglio” was not entirely successful to my mind, and became even less so when two-thirds of it, from “Deh circondatemi” onwards, was offered up again as a highly improvisatory and approximate second encore. Nor did the coloratura-stuffed cabaletta “Ove t’aggiri” from Pacini’s 1845 Stella di Napoli strike me as a suitable programme opener, too many of its silly effects – endless clucking staccati, for one – sounding at ludicrously chirpy odds with the grim text whilst proving almost impossible for the diva to deliver in tempo.
In the first half, the most successful vocal item was “Oh, di sorte crudel”, Lucia’s pre-mad aria from Michele Carafa’s 1829 Le nozze di Lammermoor, at least as fine as anything in Donizetti’s later setting of the same Walter Scott story, and sung by Ms. DiDonato with unaffected simplicity and a sure sense both of style and meaning. And though nothing vocally in the second could quite match the exquisite poise of the above-mentioned Mercadante aria, the closing scene from Pacini’s Saffo – which complete work I heard Caballé sing in Vienna in the 1980s, and, like the rest of the audience, pirated – was finely drawn and securely sung, for all that rather more spinto heft, and soprano spinto heft at that, is surely called for in this pre-Tosca leap into the void. Printed programme duly dispatched, Ms. DiDonato relaxed into her most affable manner with the – surely serendipitous – tomato routine, and after some characteristically droll references to recent political events on these shores involving Scotland of which the diva affected to know nothing, proceeded to dedicate the encore – “Tanti affetti”, the rondo-finale to Rossini’s Walter Scott-derived and Scottish-set La donna del lago – to the principle of universal peace. This was an excellent piece of singing – as indeed it was at the ROH last year, and will doubtless be again at the Met next – and should have been allowed to stand as the diva’s farewell rather than the greedily-extorted, and rather roughly executed, Zelmira partial re-run that followed it.
Two frocks were worn: a matte black sheath in the first half, with one full-length sleeve and the other arm bare but for a clutch of diamond bracelets; and in the second, a startlingly vampy, dark blood-red number in metallic finish, completely off-the-shoulder and highly décolleté to boot (Vivienne Westwood, apparently). The mezzo looked superb in both and completely at ease, which is rare when sporting so much semi-architectural accoutrement – think of poor Mmes. Fleming and Bartoli gingerly picking their way around in the orange-haired one’s more fanciful efforts – and even somehow managed to execute deep curtsies by way of audience acknowledgement that sank so low I feared for wardrobe malfunction, happily not forthcoming. In any event, we’ll be seeing plenty more of her over the course of this new season as part of her Barbican residency: and though I do harbour reservations about the quality of her voice in and of itself simply considered as sound, I look forward, as always, to her inspiriting qualities both as a performer in general, and as an artist in particular, in which capacities she earns her place as one of the era’s true greats.
(Photos : Josef Fischnaller)