Saturday, January 19, 2013

The queen

Recital - Carnegie Hall, 11/18/2012
DiDonato / Il Complesso Barocco
Maria Stuarda - Metropolitan Opera, 1/8/2013
DiDonato, van den Heever, Polenzani, Rose, Hopkins, Zifchak / Benini

A funny thing happened while I was preparing to review Joyce DiDonato's fall Carnegie Hall recital: she did it herself. Unsurprisingly, she pinpointed the two complementary joys of her own recital arsenal here highlighted. First, the slow --
the hushed, still, immobile moments that thrill us performers the most
-- is delivered by DiDonato as well and as intimately as by anyone. Second, the fast --
when we rip into the Orlandini or Handel "dance numbers" and smiles are contagiously spread over the attendees, and shoulders are bopping, heads are beating – people caught up in the euphoria of the pulse, the melody, the centuries old sentiment
-- is indeed just as electric as she herself puts it, at least as much for her own evident grasp of the moment as for her polished vocal virtuosity.

The makeup of this particular program showed the American mezzo's current status as much as anything: yes, she can now be expected to assemble a program of mostly-unknown baroque stuff, and sell it not only in her own person but on CD as well. The very cleverly dressed "Drama Queens" program she was (and will, after the final Stuarda, resume) touring presents interesting material, sometimes excellent, in both modes.

Of the slow there's more wealth: from the spare early cries of Monteverdi's Ottavia to the stately, wistful, resigned, and agonized variants of her early-18th-century counterparts, long breath and phrase are given every sort of exposure to show DiDonato's talents terrifically. The fast doesn't quite cover all the bases, at least for a live show: the non-Handel stuff falls between the full-climactic poles of ecstasy and tragic madness, making them not-quite-natural counterbalances to the extendedly-built-up emotions of the slow. Yes, it's fast & quick-rhythmic and not slow, but there's only so much the simply physical contrast can satisfy for a close-following audience. And... using pieces of defiance and even fury (the second Orlandini, done as the second encore, in particular) as "dance numbers" doesn't quite make the best sense of them.

I'm not sure how this could have been improved, though, without going further off-mandate by throwing in more Handel, whose genuinely ecstatic "Brilla nell'alma" did nice double duty as the close of both the regular program and the encore set. I suspect we don't remember those between Monteverdi and Handel in part because they weren't as good at joyful or tragic climaxes. That is to say, if this wasn't as unforgettable, epochal, or whatever as DiDonato's 2009 recital at Zankel, it's because of the higher Handel masterpiece percentage on that night's set.

Like its all-Handel predecessor, the CD itself is good, enjoyable, and well-recorded, but suffers by having been done before the tour and not at one or more of its stops. This makes perfect commercial sense (better to be able to sell and promote the product as you go along!) but is still artistically unfortunate. Live performance is, as DiDonato herself writes, a "mystical chain reaction", and there's no substitute -- or, as of yet, full audio document.

*     *     *

If November's event showed how many sides of the "slow" DiDonato commands, Maria Stuarda shows at what stunning length she commands it. After the brief Elizabeth scene at its start, the second Act is one extended display/test of the Mary's concentration and intimate singing as she moves from one encounter and aspect to the next while remaining ever exposedly central. And here DiDonato carries it off magnificently, maintaining focus and proportion through the whole stretch from confrontation (with Cecil) to remorse (with Talbot), guiding her supporters, and (in odd reversal) consoling Leicester before her death, so that the passage of Mary from uncertainty to death comes as in one long breath of spirit. The consequent hush lingers long in the audience thereafter, well through the thunderous applause at curtain.

DiDonato was the main known quantity in this very first Met production of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda. The unknowns turned out mixed. Very much a success was this third Met production of David McVicar, whose previous drab Anna Bolena disappointed as a follow-up to his astonishing Trovatore. Here he and set/costume designer John Mcfarlane present a wonderful series of contrasting pictures: first a stark red (the place) and white (the occupants) clean- and many-lined interior for Elizabeth's court, then a Romantic swirling-sky backdrop to the trees of Mary's short freedom, into which the variegated outfits and appearances of the court hunting party appear for a glorious visual tableau in the act-ending confrontation. Elizabeth's scene in the second act occurs before an immense and full-detailed seal that takes up the whole rear space; with the transition to Mary's cell there is blackness cut only by shafts of light and black-and-white bits of her handwriting until, for Mary's final scene, black-and-white empty space is transformed not by color but by the play of outside light on the black-clad figures of the crowd. (Color appears only at the end, with Mary's headlining red dress.) For the characters, his choices don't seem strictly necessary in their particular form, but the fact that they have been made seems to guide and anchor the singers' presentation. So Elizabeth is graceless, almost lumbering and bowlegged in moving about, and this almost masculine contrast to Mary's much-discussed feminine appeal makes what she sees in Mary (and the impossibility of her transcending this) very clear, while the involuntary head-tremor Mary acquires between the acts speaks as well as any narration of the years and lost hopes that the story has elided.

Less triumphant was debuting South African soprano Elza van den Heever. As Elizabeth she's not at all called upon to be charming or prettily appealing, which is fortunate because those don't seem to be her strengths. Her sound is, I think, rather hard to like -- it's certainly there, and the notes all sound, but there's a certain harsh quality to the tone that's offset neither by great resonant volume/scale nor by a brilliant flexibility. Everything fits and works in this part of this production, but how many other such are there?

The men, on the other hand, were all terrific. Matthew Polenzani's familiar combination of natural earnestness and lovely tone makes Leicester's appeal to both queens understandable despite all naivete, bass Matthew Rose is strong and firm as Talbot -- his duet with Mary in the second act perhaps the highlight of the evening -- and baritone Joshua Hopkins does much in the small but significant part of Cecil. In the pit Maurizio Benini surely deserves dual credit with DiDonato for the show's extended coherence -- it's significantly better work than I'd have expected from his middling first shows here. Donizetti and Giuseppe Bardari's slow-motion, almost chamber account of Mary Stuart's doom and death is a marvel that probably should have succeeded on the Met stage before... but it's appropriate that our Golden Age of Mezzos (Blythe's Azucena was the night after this, though she's out of tonight's Trovatore) premiered this great Maliban part here.

1 comment:

  1. I saw La Rondine recently. I thought that Opolais was great. Filianoti, though, no longer has secure top notes. There was a point in the evening where he couldn't break the passagio. You could hear the strain whenever he tried to go for the high notes.


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