This week has been a bit of a mezzo fest for me - seven days ago I went to see the wonderful Susan Graham at the Wigmore Hall, then saw an extremely promising young mezzo in the RCM Figaro, then Elizabeth DeShong in yesterday's Brynfest, and today back to the Wigmore Hall for Joyce DiDonato.
Joyce DiDonato seems to have an immense following, so I'm going to risk courting controversy and suggest that I don't think she's a star because she has a particularly beautiful voice. The very tight, narrow vibrato gives the sound a brittleness and edge that isn't at all luxurious or warm, and it's (the vibrato that is) inherently unsteady too, with little "blips" heard in every note of extended duration. It's not vocal tension in the normal sense, with jaw shaking and tongue compression (with all its incipient problems), but there's a shivering tension in the sound that is slightly uncomfortable. This is not bad. This is its appeal. In the right repertoire she's exciting to listen to because of these vocal peculiarities and this distinctive sound and her risk taking. Unfortunately this evening's Venice themed recital didn't quite play to her strengths enough but was nevertheless pretty enjoyable.
One great thing was all the unusual repertoire she chose - I hadn't heard a single one of these pieces before. Sort of Bartoli-esque in this way (stylistically too the biggest audible influence, and sometimes not all that different in tone either). I never quite understand the chronological approach to recital building, except of course when it becomes the thematic point of a recital. Here the theme was Venice, but it seems that starting with Baroque music, as so often happens, is not the easiest way to warm up the voice, or "test out" the room. The two arias Onde chiare che sussrrate and Amato ben from Vivaldi's Ercole sul Termodonte (nope, no idea either) were surprising and very inventive - really great to hear, and surprisingly good with piano. Unfortunately DiDonato seemed unsettled at this stage, legato singing not a strong point anyway, and here the awkward jumps in the vocal line proving problematic. The Fauré Cinq mélodies ‘de Venise’ are all about subtle line, quiet detail and atmosphere, but again didn't seem ideally matched to DiDonato's strengths - she was frequently out of tune and didn't sound at ease in the endlessly rapt cantilenas.
Next came another rarity, and an absolute beauty too - a late (1858) song cycle by Rossini. I love Rossini an unreasonable amount. Can't exactly say way. Easily my favourite of the bel cantists. He's just so cool. And I like his late, completely out of fashion stuff too, where he's ignoring everything that's going on around him musically and is just continuing to plough his own furrow. There's special stuff in there. Anyhow, Rossini for me is a perfect match for DiDonato and plays to all her strengths - excitement and abandon are what this music needs and that's what DiDonato delivered in spades. The Italian language seems to be by some distance the best for her voice in terms of sound and also interpretively - she sounds incisive, expressive, confident and commanding in a way she doesn't quite so fully in French or German, and when singing quietly too, the fluttery tone here seems just right. These songs (La regata veneziana) emerged as charming miniature masterpieces, quirky and inventive, DiDonato singing them with complete conviction and a humour, darting and swinging through their corners and heights.
After the interval, Schubert's wonderful Gondelfahrer was quite lovely, and the fluttery, shimmery vibrato here somehow recalled Schwarzkopf. David Zobel's piano playing was beautifully shaped here, and throughout he displayed a very lovely tone and unnerringly crisp playing. Schumann's Zwei Venetianische Lieder from Myrthen were less special but after that we got Head's Three songs of Venice which are atmospheric, subtly jazz inspired, slightly sentimental and include some lovely Straussian shifts in harmony and vocal line. We were back almost back on home ground with Hahn's turn of the century Venezia – Chansons en dialecte vénetien which are lovely parlour pieces: funny, sentimental and catchy.
For encores we got another Vivaldi rarity, and then some more Rossini - here the famous finale of La Cenerentola which was delightful to hear. I must say however that I'm not at all a fan of her heavy aspirates in the coloratura much (Bartoli's influence again) as it really affects the line and muddies the pitch too. Certainly better than nothing though, and she took the final section at break neck speed, made it her own, took plenty of risks and raised a huge cheer as she finished. Finally a feel good end with a sincere and heartfelt (!) Somewhere Over the Rainbow.