Arts & Events

New: Joyce DiDonato Promotes Harmony Through Music

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday December 07, 2016 - 10:51:00 AM

On Sunday, December 4 at 3:00 pm at Zellerbach Hall, acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato teamed up with Italian period instrument ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro to perform a theatrical program of Baroque arias on the theme of war, peace and harmony through music. A sure sign that this was no ordinary concert came immediately upon entering Zellerbach’s auditorium, for Joyce DiDonato was already onstage, seated behind the musicians’ chairs towards the back, with a dim spotlight illuminating her regal presence wearing a silver-grey gown. Even before the Il Pomo d’Oro musicians filed onstage, Ms. DiDonato was joined by a male dancer, Argentine native Manuel Palazzo , who appeared bare-chested, wearing only a long skirt-like cloth garment belted at the waist. Mr. Palazzo struck several poses downstage left, while Ms. DiDonato remained seated upstage right. Only when the musicians entered and began playing the opening number, Handel’s aria from Jeptha, “Scenes of horror, scenes of woe,” did Joyce DiDonato arise from her chair and stride forward as she began to sing. 

As conceived by Joyce DiDonato, this was a uniquely immersive multi-media program. Directed by Ralf Pleger, this concert featured imaginative lighting designed by Henning Blum and subtle, semi-abstract video images designed by Yousef Iskandar. The dancing by Manuel Palazzo was never intrusive, yet it added to the overall drama of the music, as did the lighting and video effects. Maxim Emelyanychev conducted Il Pomo d’Oro from the harpsichord.  

The first half of the program dealt with war, the second half with peace; and Joyce DiDonato set forth in program notes exactly how she viewed this program. “As a citizen of the world in 2016,” she wrote, “the temptation to spiral down into the turmoil and pessimism that seemingly permeates all corners of our lives can overwhelm me at times, and the temptation to give in to the dispiriting din of upheaval can devastate the spirit. And yet, I’m a belligerent, proud, willing optimist.” For Joyce DiDonato peace amidst chaos and turmoil can be created through music; and she asks us, each member of the audience at this concert, how we might find harmony and peace within ourselves. Make no mistake about it: This is a bold, probing gesture from a woman who is not only a consummate artist, indeed “one of the finest singers of our time,” as Jake Heggie wrote in Gramophone, but also a woman fiercely committed to urging people to think about how each of us has a responsibility to work in whatever ways we can towards greater peace and harmony both within ourselves and in this world. 

Following the opening Handel aria, Ms. DiDonato tore into an aria from the opera Andromaca by Leonardo Leo written in 1742 with a libretto by Antonio Salvi based on Racine’s play Andromaque. Here was a mother, the wife of the fallen hero Hector of Troy, aghast at the prospect of seeing her son about to be murdered by the victorious Greeks. “Drink my blood too,” she wails in fury. Joyce DiDonato sang this devastating aria with passionate intensity, her voice raging with dark anger and horror in masterful coloratura. Next came two instrumental pieces, one by Emilio De Cavaleiri (1550-1602), “Sinfonia Rappresentatione di anima e di corpo, and a second by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), a Ciaconna for three violins and basso continuo. Then Joyce DiDonato returned to sing Dido’s famous Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689). Ms. DiDonato sang this beautiful piece with great dignity and poignancy. Next she sang the aria Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” from Handel’s Agrippina in which Agrippina seeks help from the gods in elevating her son Nero to the throne of emperor of Rome. Following this aria came another instrumental work, Trisitis est animam mea from Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). The closing work of the first half of this program was Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” from his opera Rinaldo. This beautiful aria was for me one of the many highlights of this concert. 

After intermission Joyce DiDonato opened with “They tell us that you mighty powers” from Henry Purcell’s opera The Indian Queen (1695). Next she sang an aria from Handel’s Susanna (1749) and followed it with another Handel aria, “Da tempeste il legno infranto” from his opera Cleopatra. Accompanying the latter aria about a storm at sea were video images of lightning flashes. Following this came a lovely modern piece by Arvo Pärt, an instrumental version of his “Da pacem, Domine” from 1935. Yet another Handel aria came next, “Augeletti, che cantata” from his opera Rinaldo. For this aria about the sweet airs of birdsong, a lovely recorder solo by Daphna Mor was an apt accompaniment. The final item on the scheduled program was the aria “Par che di giubilo” from the opera Attilio Regolo by Neapolitan favorite Niccolò Jommelli (1714-1774). This aria ecstatically extolling joy made a fitting close to this concert celebrating harmony through music.  

But Joyce DiDonato was not done. For the first encore she and Il Pomo d’Oro repeated the Jommelli aria; then she sang the lied Morgen by Richard Strauss. Ms. DiDonato also spoke quite movingly of wishing to dedicate this concert to the memory of Dr. Alan Curtis, the late musicologist from U.C. Berkeley, and of her hope that we members of the audience would be inspired to write a brief note on cards enclosed in our programs offering our own personal view of ways we might promote peace amidst the chaos of our era. To honor Ms. DiDonato’s request, I wrote “For someone like me who came of age when JFK was elected, the thought of Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear trigger is ominous to say the least. May the spirit of peace prevail. Let music guide us.”