Chamber music and recital

DiDonato/Il Pomo d’Oro: Baroque recital

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.

Joyce DiDonato in Hong Kong.

Joyce DiDonato in Hong Kong.


Bayerische Staatsoper/Allemandi: La Cenerentola

Date: July 12, 2012
Conductor: Antonello Allemandi
Production: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

When Nikolaus Bachler, the Intendant of the opera house, appeared on stage before the curtain went up to announce that Joyce DiDonato was not feeling well, the hall permeated with a concerted gasp of disappointment, only to be replaced by relief when Bachler said that DiDonato would nevertheless continue.

At the outset, DiDonato’s voice was buttery and clean, and did not sound particularly stressed. Nevertheless, she took care to preserve her voice for the opera’s finale, so much so that she was nearly inaudible in most of the ensemble singing. That put additional pressure on the two other female voices, who had the unenviable task of counterbalancing an all-male tag team of lead vocals as well as chorus. If DiDonato consciously saved her voice throughout the evening, she let it all out in Non piu mesta. DiDonato proved that textural sensibility and vocal agility could coexist beautifully, as her acrobatic passages flowed with sensual, expressive coloration. An optionally interpolated high D-flat before one of those two-octave descending scales provided a playful counterpoint, akin to a plump cherry sitting atop a Rococo-style, multi-layered wedding cake.

When Dandini arrived at Don Magnifico’s house as Ramiro, he casually threw his hat and baton to his real boss in a terse but fine moment of dramma giocoso. But such was the theatrical masterstroke of Ponnelle, who with this short interaction was able to convey Ramiro’s slight displeasure at being subjugated, even temporarily; Dandini’s satisfaction in being his own boss; and the dramma giocoso’s playful sensibility. (This directorial brilliance was also evident in a video recording of the same production, with Claudio Abbado and La Scala, some thirty years ago.) The staging showed signs of its age, with the colors of many of the scrims fading away. One scrim malfunctioned briefly and caused Cinderella to sing part of her second Une volta…un re with a half-drawn scrim, but otherwise the drama flowed perfectly.

Lawrence Brownlee, as Ramiro, was confident and accurate in delivery, but lacked bite and charisma. In Si, ritrovarla io guiro, Brownlee added a third high C in the da capo. Alessandro Corbelli, as Don Magnifico, lost some of his vocal prowess due to age, but more than compensated with dramatic weight, as he should in this genre. Nikolay Borchev’s vibrato, sounding forced and unnatural, needed more refining. As an actor he drew genuine laughter whenever the drama required of his Dandini. Alex Esposito, as Alidoro, projected an exceptionally strong and ringing voice, albeit just a tad too bright for bel canto. As Clorinda, Eri Nakamura excelled vocally. More importantly, she acted the part with a whimsical but cheerful giddiness, and didn’t look at all like someone who sandwiched this Clorinda performance between her Woglindes during the Munich Ring.