Date: May 6, 2015
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.
Arguably the most anticipated program of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, Drama Queens, is also its last. The program, which has been on tour all over the world for the past few years and featuring mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, offered a vocal compendium of high drama of the royal characters in 17th and 18th century operas. The collection of lesser-known laments/arias is procured from a repertoire that, at least in this part of the world, deserves more play time on the recital circuit.
On purely technical grounds, DiDonato has not demonstrated the sort of demanding breathing technique and ornamentation execution that one would expect from a tried-and-true Baroque expert. For example, in “Intorno all’idol mio”, from Antonio Cesti’s Orontea, DiDonato’s intense vibrato somewhat muffled the precision of Baroque’s ornamentation. Her timbre radiated with a dramatic warmth, but her phrasings and breathing points were often found to be misaligned with the instrumental background, and could not produce the sort of calibrated exactitude that one would expect from this repertoire. Having said that, DiDonato dazzled in every way. Her voice was assertive and captivating, and the emotion let out from her timbre felt authentic and genuine. Her vocal output, and more importantly her facial expressions, exhibited a vivid cinematic wonder of anger, bitterness, bliss, sorrow etc. In Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s “Da torbida procella” from Berenice, DiDonato handled the impossibly fast coloratura passages with stunning effortlessness and a scorching thrill. In each rendition of the da capo passage, she delighted the audience with varying sentimentality and technical brilliance. Her encore of Reinhard Keiser’s “Let Me Weep” was absolutely riveting, when she caressed her pianissimos as though they were her long-lost baby. Throughout the evening, she would throw out high notes with resolute abandon (by rushing air flow through her larynx) to gain maximum dramatic effect, yet with nary a hint of uncontrolled recklessness that often tires or damages even the most well-trained vocal assets.
Baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro supported DiDonato’s vocal efforts with aplomb, and proved to be more than just a reliable accompaniment, especially in the fiery, attention-seeking da capo passage in the Orlandini. DiDonato’s outrageous Mohawk hairdo could use more restraint in temperament, while her flaming red gown, specially designed by Vivienne Westwood for her Drama Queens tour, served as much to wow as, regrettably, to remind us of a raging Kansan BBQ-pit flame. But by all accounts, there was much to be savored in a program that, judging from the frenzied audience response before and after the encores, Hong Kong audience deserves more of.