BWW Review: JOYCE DIDONATO AND ANTONIO PAPPANO IN CONCERT, Royal Opera House
Apt to glide over a labyrinth of spiralling coloratura loops the way a train swoops up and down the ribbons of a roller coaster, Joyce DiDonato's voice is both a gift to music and the product of an unabashed music-lover.
The mezzo-soprano favours moulding every concert into a kaleidoscopic, international excursion. Last night at the Royal Opera House, accompanied by Sir Antonio Pappano, she set her voice afoot to backdrops of Greek myths, to zarzuela-ridden Spain and The Arabian Nights mixed in with watercolours of impressionistic 20th-century Paris.
The singer began with rarely recognised arias from Haydn's Arianna a Naxos. Her lament as the abandoned young lover in "Dove sei, mio bel tesoro?" - "Where are you, my sweet treasure?" - was moderate, somewhat restrained, until her heroine's mourning caught flame. Hurling insults of "Spergiuro, infido" - "Traitor, betrayer" - her voice was a numinous channel of vengeance shedding bloodlust in streams.
The verbal assault was immediately followed by "Ah! Che morir vorrei" - Ariadne's longing to perish. After palpable thick vibrato and trills that mustered violence and volume, DiDonato wound down and receded into static grief. Her voice began to wither in its curses at the sky ("ingiusto ciel") - as slowly as a rising steam would emanate from an extinguished fire.
A colossal musical change came about with the next set of works: a trio of songs from Enrique Granados' 1911 La maja dolorosa. In her exquisite diction, DiDonato's "s"s became sibilant and symbolised the hissing sighs emitted at the fierce oppression of the Spanish sun.
She combined zealous nostalgia and hopelessness with her rendition of "¡Oh, muerte cruel!", where her extended diminuendi on certain notes simmered with both reflection and despair; we witnessed her character watching the scenes of her past.
With the popular zarzuela song "De España vengo" ("I come from Spain"), DiDonato sustained long trills of rolled "r"s to conjure an especial dance-like, Spanish flavour. Her manner of slowing down on certain phrases such as the description of a man's eyes - "unos ojos negros, muy negros" (eyes that are black, so black) - radiated her character's mesmerisation and attraction to a gypsy who does not requite her love.
Ravel's intrusion on the evening with his own Shéhérazade prompted more aria-inspired volume outbursts that eventually began to melt into a gentler and more concentrated chanson style.
DiDonato's treatment of the first song, "Asie", was a little overridden by abrupt crescendi in the operatic fashion. And yet the work is influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov's extravagant and grandiose Scheherazade. Her voice elected to respond more to that aspect of the piece than to the modern and impressionistic ones.
Nevertheless, the instrument was quick to mould itself into precisely such a pattern with the singer's versions of the other two songs, "La Flûte Enchantée" and "L'indifférent". Here the rising and falling arcs of volume were subtler; diminuendi were hushed by her character's timidity, and a delicate 20th-century pitch bend - like the clarinet glissando at the start of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue - made its way into the vocalisation.
Finishing the evening with a quartet of American musical theatre songs, the mezzo-soprano showed off her glossy lowest register with ease. As several recordings will testify, DiDonato possesses the sublime faculty of twisting her voice to apply it to both jazz and song with a naturalness unknown to most opera vocalists.
Here too she added playful accidentals to the starts of phrases in "The Siren's Song" from the musical Leave it to Jane, and performed a deliberately steady crescendo on the word "slow" in "Go Little Boat" from musical Miss. Yet for some reason just before these songs a music stand turned up in front of her. And every now and then it was a little tricky not to notice DiDonato taking sneak peeks at the notes and starts of phrases.
A master of her art, she tackled Rossini's speed-defying "La Danza" as an encore and finished off with Irving Berlin's "I Love a Piano" - singing of "Maestro Tony" (Pappano) being about to "throw that old baton away". It was whimsically inventive and stuck very well to the genre of musical theatre.
That said, it would have seemed a little more spontaneous if all the same jokes hadn't been performed at the pair's Wigmore Hall recital back in August 2015 and recorded on a now widely available disc. But a show is a show and the audience was happy.
Pappano's accompaniment to all the works served to demonstrate the sheer number of roles he could occupy - from cabaret star to recital accompanist to rehearsal pianist (which he was, once) - if he did not devote all his artistic talents to the harder discipline of orchestra conducting.
Overall, Joyce DiDonato manifested once again how easily her voice adheres to various eras and manipulations and techniques; clinging as naturally to both classical German arias and voice-bending Ravel as a sugary glaze sticks to pastry.
It was another reminder that DiDonato is not a star in opera - but the star. And, despite some fumbled notes in the American songs and some shortness of breath in "La danza", it's certainly staying that way.