Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A new Joyce DiDonato recording!

Last week, through the generosity of the folks at Erato (and their PR machine), I received an advance copy of dear Joyce DiDonato's new CD, which was released to the public today. On this recording, Stella di Napoli, we are treated to ten arias from early 19th‑century Naples opera composers, including one from the eponymous opera by Pacini. Most of these are quite seldom heard--some never recorded before--but we are also treated to arias from Maria Stuarda (Donizetti) and from I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (Bellini). Ms. DiDonato is accompanied by the Orchestre et Choeur de l'Opéra de Lyon, under the capable leadership of conductor Riccardo Minasi.

Photo (c) Pari Dukovic
Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867), like all the composers on this CD, was a contemporary of the bel canto triumvirate--Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini. Considered a lightweight by his contemporaries and many critics of following ages, he withdrew from composing opera in 1834 or 1835 and undertook a study of the trends in Italian opera of the age. He returned to composing in 1840, and his later period operas show a more mature style.

Saffo was Pacini's first new opera during this period. In the finale, Saffo, overwrought by unrequited love, chooses to throw herself off a cliff to end her suffering. This being bel canto opera, there are numerous last-minute revelations, but having made a deal with Apollo, she must ignore even these happy surprises and leap to her death. With this scene Pacini shows he was "no longer [a composer] of light cabalettas, but rather of complex works and considered productions," to quote conductor Riccardo Minasi's liner notes. This is the sort of scene in which Ms. DiDonato excels, acting the role with her voice in a hundred subtle ways--passion, tenderness, despair, et cetera.

"Ove t'aggiri, o barbaro" from Pacini's Stella di Napoli from the same period, is by contrast a florid polonaise, its style suggesting Stella's vengeful lyrics ("Where are you, cruel man I love so dearly?") might not be completely indicative of her fate. This aria's placement in Act I suggests that more will be revealed, and the outcome will not be what we are led to expect. (Searching for information about the opera yields hundreds of hits for this CD, but very little information about the opera itself.)

Michele Carafa (1787-1872) was the only composer on the disc I did not know, and by chance the composer on this recording whose life outspanned all others. He composed at least twelve operas, including settings of the stories we know from Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Bellini's La Sonnambula. On this recording we hear an aria from his opera Le Nozze di Lammermoor, in which Lucia anxiously awaits her lover, and calls on Hope to bring her comfort. The vocal writing includes long, legato phrases with subtle touches of fioritura. It is no surprise Ms. DiDonato is more than equal to these vocal challenges, and imbues these long phrases with great tenderness.



Another favorite is from Donizetti's (1797-1848) seldom performed Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth. This was Donizetti's first venture into Tudor territory. (Elizabeth I seems to have fascinated the imaginations of 19th‑century Italians.) Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is a favorite of the Queen, but has married his love, Amelia. When the Queen visits Leicester's castle, he tries to hide Amelia, leading to Amelia's aria both sad and angry. In addition to the vocal interest of this aria, we can't deny the charm of a glass armonica obbligato.

Time and space prevent me from describing all of the arias. Superlatives about Ms. DiDonato's singing, her amazing vocal skills, her understanding and interpretation of each character and scene, her interpretive talents, must surely grow tiresome. Indeed, one headline I saw about this CD used the word "dizzying" in reference to the repertoire and her amazing vocal prowess. Flawless? Almost. Although Ms. DiDonato's voice lies very high, there are a few moments in which the high tessitura seems slightly stressful. All in all, however, I must concur with the WQXR NY quote that is highlighted in the CD's publicity materials: "How blessed we are to be living in the age of DiDonato."




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