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An Arid Garden, A Laudable Cause

Teatro alla Scala
06/23/2023 -  & March 2 (Bruxelles), 4 (Luxembourg), 6 (Arnhem), 8 (Amsterdam), 11 (Aalborg), 14 (Hamburg), 20 (Wien), 22 (Budapest), April 5, 6 (London), 9 (Dublin), 12 (Kansas City), 14 (Ann Arbor), 16 (Chicago), 19 (Toronto), 23 (New York), 24 (Washington), September 2 (Grafenegg), 11 (Linz), 13 (Gent), October 5 (Paris), 2022, January 18 (La Jolla), 20 (Stanford), 21 (Berkeley), 24 (Santa Barbara), 29 (Montreal), 30 (Québec), February 1 (Princeton), May 30 (Athinai), June 2 (Lisboa), 5 (Madrid), 6 (Barcelona), 8 (Toulouse), 11 (Dresden), 13 (Bremen), 15 (Essen), 18 (Katowice), 20 (Jūrmala), 2023
Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question
Rachel Portman: The First Morning of the World
Gustav Mahler: Rückert‑Lieder: 2. “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” & 5. “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”
Marco Uccellini: Sinfonia a 5, op. 7 n° 3
Biagio Marini: Scherzi e canzonette, op. 5: 3. “Con le stelle in ciel che mai”
Josef Myslivecek: Adamo ed Eva: “Toglierò le sponde al mare”
Aaron Copland: Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson: 1. “Nature, the Gentlest Mother”
Giovanni Valentini: Sonata in G minor “Enharmonica”
Francesco Cavalli: La Calisto: “Piante ombrose”
Christoph Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice: “Danza degli spettri e delle furie”  – Ezio: “Misera dove son!... Ah! Non son io che parlo”
Georg Friedrich Händel: Theodora, HWV 68: “As with rosy steps the morn”

Joyce DiDonato (mezzo), Manuel Palazzo (actor)
Coro di Voci Bianche dell’Accademia Teatro alla Scala, Marco de Gaspari (chorus master), Orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro, Maxim Emelyanychev (conductor)
Marie Lambert-Le Bihan (stage director), John Torres (lighting)

J. DiDonato (© Bozar/Marin Driguez)

Joyce DiDonato’s touring project, “Eden,” is making stops in 45 major cities. This 80‑minute musical program encompasses four centuries of music evoking nature and what it inspired in various composers. It’s a call to arms whose objective is to remind us that planet earth is precious, and therefore for its survival we must commit to mobilize and act. The show was also conceived to cross‑promote a Grammy‑nominated Warner Music album (it didn’t win, despite extolling all virtues du jour).

The concert opened with Ives’ The Unanswered Question, a bleak work that is meant to stimulate thoughts on the state of the planet. The trumpet part was transposed for voice. DiDonato entered the stage while singing from the audience. It was musically questionable and not especially appealing, but it did create an effect.

Next was The First Morning of the World by Rachel Porter (b. 1962), a contemporary British composer. Given that there were no subtitles or texts to the sung pieces, it was hard to tell what this piece was about. This was also true of the other pieces, save the two well‑known Mahler Lieder, and two dramatic Italian arias where the recitative is clearly enunciated. Nonetheless, Porter’s semi‑parlando piece was the one in which DiDonato was most expressive and at ease vocally.

Mahler’s monumental Lied, “Ich atmet’ einen Linden Duft” felt out of place in this concert, with its cabaret‑like setting and lighting. This song, from a text by German poet Friedrich Rückert (1788‑1866), is usually a most moving one. Here, it sounded merely decorative and strangely bereft of emotion.

Things moved on to the Baroque, a more familiar terrain for the singer and the ensemble in an orchestral piece by Marco Uccellini (1603‑1680) which set the stage for better things to come. Indeed, “Con le stelle in ciel che mai” by Biagio Marini (1594‑1663) was an upbeat song with baroque guitar accompaniment. The reference to the sky was its nature‑related component. The music blended into a very different piece, an aria by Czech composer Josef Myslivecek (1737‑1781), a contemporary of Mozart, “Toglierò le sponde al mare” (I will tear up the sea off its banks) from his oratorio Adamo ed Eva. It’s a dramatic aria that helped liven up the proceedings, however DiDonato unfortunately displayed some unpleasant vibrato in her lower register.

The program then returned to more recent American repertoire, with a song by Aaron Copland set to a poem by Emily Dickinson, “Nature, The Gentlest Mother,” brilliantly executed by DiDonato. An orchestral piece by Venetian composer Giovanni Valentini (1582‑1649) paved the way to the aria “Piante ombrose” (Shady Plants) from La Callisto by Francesco Cavalli (1602‑1676), a mellow aria that mostly lies in the middle register, demanding expressiveness more than vocal bravura.

A most rousing interlude, “Danza degli spettri e delle furie,” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, paved the way to the concert’s most memorable piece, “Misera! Dove son?... Ah! Non so io che parlo!” from Ezio by the same composer. The lyrics were clearly enunciated and expressive. The declamatory phrases, “E il barbaro dolor che mi divide il core” and “Un fulmine gli chiedo” were highly effective. The public was most ecstatic at the end of this dramatic aria. It’s hard to understand why the most obvious choice for this program, another Gluck aria for mezzo‑soprano, “Che puro ciel” (from Orfeo ed Euridice), was not included in the program. It’s beautiful; it evokes the beauty of nature; it takes place in the Elysium (Paradise); and it lies within DiDonato’s reach.

This was followed by “With rosy steps the morn” from Handel’s Theodora, Irene’s moving prayer that expresses both faith and vulnerability. Again, this aria lies mostly in the middle register and was eloquently interpreted, though the lyrics were hard to understand. Beyond a reference to “morn” and “night,” it was not obvious how it fit into the program’s nature theme.

The lighting didn’t evoke the Garden of Eden or, for that matter, Nature. On occasion, blinding spot lights were directed toward the audience, evoking the interrogation scenes in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon rather than Eden. Indeed, the dark stage and the aggressive spotlights suggested cabaret, more appropriate for an evening of Kurt Weill and company.

A gimmick were two metallic circles (given the “Nature” context, it ought to have been wood or flowers) that rotated around the show’s star. One of the circles was complete; the other was incomplete. Early in the show, DiDonato used an arc as a simulated string instrument. This had a striking visual effect. By the end of the show, the arc was integrated into the incomplete ring, making it a full circle. As this signified the turning of the seasons and a return to the beginning, DiDonato reprised Mahler in another Rückert Lied, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” This time it was more expressively interpreted than the one at the start of the concert.

The mixing of styles and epochs in this show was not convincing. The absence of subtitles or texts in the program left the audience with a purely visual and aural experience. Beyond the words of the presenter prior to the show, I doubt anyone was compelled to care more about nature’s conservation. However, the initiative is a noble and important one.

In most cities, this show is a regular concert event. In Milan, it was a benefit for a charitable organization, the Fondazione Francesca Rava, an organization that provides medical help for children in Haiti and elsewhere, as well as relief for refugees in Italy. Indeed, the audience was different from the usual La Scala crowd, whether opera or orchestra aficionados. Most seemed excited to be at the venerable opera house, possibly for the first time. A considerable number of members of the audience were taking souvenir photos with their phones throughout the show, competing with the show’s blinding spotlights. Indeed, a Garden of Eden for our time!

Ossama el Naggar



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