Furore! DiDonato Sets the House Alight
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
G. F. Handel: Opera Arias and Instrumental Music
From Teseo : “Dolce riposo” – “Ira, sdegni e furore” – “O stringero nel sen” – “Moriro, ma vendicata”;
From Imeneo : Overture – “Sorge nell’alma mia”;
From Il Pastor Fido : Chaconne
From Serse: “Crude furie”;
From Ariodante: “Scherza infida”;
From Rodrigo : Passacaglia in B-flat Major;
From Hercules : Overture – “Cease Ruler of the Day to Rise” – “Where Shall I Fly”
Joyce DiDonato (Mezzo-Soprano)
Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset (Conductor)
Joyce DiDonato (© Sheila Rock/Virgin Classics)
On Friday evening, the audience at Carnegie Hall’s small modern recital stage, Zankel Hall, celebrated a perfect marriage of two great artists – a singer, Joyce DiDonato, whose career is in the midst of a well-deserved meteoric rise, and a composer, G. F. Handel, whose operas are in the midst of a long-delayed reexamination. Ms. DiDonato gave a vocally and dramatically brilliant and passionate performance of arias drawn from five Handel operas – Teseo, Imeneo, Serse, Ariodante and Hercules. Instrumental extracts from Hercules, Rodrigo and Il Pastor Fido were interspersed among them, to give her a brief respite and to showcase the strength of Christophe Rousset and his superb orchestra.
The concert was a fitting tribute to Handel in the year marking the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his death. It also tied in handily with the release of Ms. DiDonato’s new CD, Furore. The title of both the recital and CD are the same as is the programming idea behind them. Ms. DiDonato has combed the Handel repertoire for operatic gems that convey varying types of rage and grief. She gave life to these arias and the characters who sing them using every tool in her vocal arsenal – extraordinary coloratura technique, gorgeous coloration, lovely legato singing, and a willingness to take risks and let loose in order to fully convey the emotional content of the works.
Handel had a highly successful and prolific career, most of which was spent in London. After his death, however, his approximately forty operas fell into ill-deserved obscurity. The first revivals came in 1920, in Germany. Performances in other countries were mounted only much later. The fate of Ariodante is a fairly typical example. Handel composed this sublime work in just two months, from August to October, 1734, for his first season at Covent Garden. There were only eleven performances. The opera was revived in 1736 for an additional two, and then it disappeared from the repertoire until a Stuttgart production in 1928. The New York premiere came forty-three years later at Carnegie Hall.
The last twenty years has seen a Handel revival as companies worldwide – including The New York City Opera, the English National Opera and, most recently, the San Francisco Opera – have mounted critically acclaimed productions. Ms. DiDonato’s singing of Ariodante’s exquisite act two aria, Scherza infida was, for me, the highlight of Friday evening’s concert. It was a vocal and dramatic tour de force, lasting almost ten minutes and having a mere three lines of text. At times, her gorgeous legato singing was limited to a heartbreaking single drawn out syllable, accompanied by a weeping bassoon and plucked strings. In its celebration of the power of the human voice to convey emotion it reminded me of a very different sort of work, Villa-Lobos’ ethereal Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.
Ms. DiDonato’s mesmerizing performance made the most persuasive case for a wider examination of Handel’s operatic oeuvre. The BBC is doing just that: In order to commemorate the 250th anniversary, BBC Radio 3 has begun an ambitious project to showcase one of Handel’s operas every week. One hopes that this will uncover even more hidden gems.
Surely the best explanation for the absence of Handel operas from the mainstream repertoire lies with the conventions of opera seria; the prevalent operatic form in the first part of the eighteenth century is one that is unfamiliar to many of us and also, admittedly, rather odd. Operas were made up of a succession of da capo arias separated by recitatives, which advance the plot. In contrast, the arias tended to freeze the action while the character commented on his or her feelings.
There were no ensembles that, beginning with Mozart, do so much to reveal character and move the drama along.
Another unhelpful opera seria convention was the pasticcio – the practice of lifting an aria from one opera and using it in another, as long as they articulated the same general emotion or, in the term of the time, the same affekt. Dramatically, of course, this made no sense. Nonetheless, many composers did it routinely. Handel engaged in such substitutions only for revivals, not for original compositions. In contrast to his contemporaries, he lavished a great deal of attention on the creation of psychologically compelling characters whom we get to know either in very long arias, such as Scherza infida or several arias extending through an opera (as in the program’s examples from Teseo, which span acts two through five). In the first excerpt, Dolce riposo, DiDonato’s beautiful legato line over solo oboe and throbbing strings evoked the serenity that was a dream but could never be a reality. In the subsequent arias, the anger became overwhelming. Both the singer, with her extraordinary vocal fireworks, and the cascading strings hurtled down the scale. The oboe returned but peace has fled.
The dramatic high point of the recital came in the second aria from Hercules, Where shall I fly? , a gripping and vocally stunning six minute descent into madness. DiDonato was riveting as she gave her all, utilizing her faultless vocal technique and her sense of drama to create a character that was utterly convincing. The pathos, anger and, finally, the hysteria of the vocal line was mirrored in the orchestra. The effect was overwhelming as was the ovation.
Two encores followed - Ombra mai fu from Serse, in which DiDonato evoked an ethereal pensive mood and sang with exquisite vocal coloration, and Dopo notte from Ariodante, where her prodigious vocal technique was employed to convey joy instead of rage. There could have been no lovelier way to end the evening. The roar of the audience was only silenced by her invitation to meet up in the lobby where she would sign her CD’s.
Finally, a bit of well-deserved praise for the orchestra which, throughout, manifested a virtually symbiotic relationship with DiDonato, mirroring every nuance of emotion that she conveyed. She said that she will miss them and I am sure that she will.
Arlene Judith Klotzko