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Thursday 7 February 2013

Joyce DiDonato's Drama Queens at the Barbican


The recentish glut of albums of baroque ultra obscurities continues to be a mixed blessing. Cecilia Bartoli reglamorised the idea of baroque coloratura for the masses in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but hers is an instrument of unique timbre and peculiar but spellbinding musicianship - the mere sound is often enough to carry what is sometimes very clearly second or third rate material straight to the heart. I have my own theories on why she continues to plough this furrow, but she remains the best at it.

I found this to be a very mixed evening. Despite immaculate playing and clear commitment and enthusiasm from all, the repertoire presented here was tryingly slight (excepting the Handel arias). It entertains well enough moment by moment, but there's no sustenance to be found here, no lasting impact on the ears or soul. Of course this sort of evening needs a soloist of stature and character to carry it, and unfortunately, for me on this occasion, Joyce DiDonato came up short.

The tonal quality of the voice is quite "thin", with a very fast, narrow, brittle vibrato, attractive middle and bright top. In music where the voice is not supported by a wash of orchestral sound this thinness becomes a problem: the sound feels undernourished and we hear every defect. The main issue I think is that the airflow is not steady, so the vibrato has lots of little bumps and blips in it and becomes especially unstable when singing quietly and also when singing high. I've just looked back to the previous times when I have reviewed DiDonato on this blog and find that I have written almost the same things. It's a voice that's easy to like but hard to love: there's nothing to be intoxicated by, no hidden surfaces in the sound, no bloom, no perfume.

Like Bartoli, DiDonato's coloratura is heavily aspirated which can sound fine on recordings if the listener doesn't mind it, but in the concert hall the sound becomes muddy, inherently limited in volume and tone, and downright unpleasant in the low register. Her intonation is basically good, though larger intervals can pose problems. I have heard her live much better than here (for example in The ROH La Cenerentola and her Wigmore Hall recital), and part of it must surely have been the poor acoustics of the Barbican, but I was sitting in top price seats (11th row of the stalls) and I was struggling to find positives to focus on. I'm willing to believe it was a more satisfying experience closer to the stage, and also that she perhaps was having an off night. She's a fun personality and fun to watch as she seemed to be having a great time on stage along with the players, not to mention the drooping grandeur of her OTT Vivienne Westwood dress (not dissimilar from the ones that the designer has made for Renée Fleming) but this was a disappointing evening from her.

The playing of Il Complesso Barocco was buoyant, fresh and nicely shaped. The leader Dmitry Sinkovsky revealed an absolutely gorgeous sense of line and phrasing in his solos and his Vivaldi concerto "Per Pisendel" RV242 was sensationally good. A fantastic violinist who I hadn't heard of before.

1 comment:

  1. For a long time I thought I was the only one who thought DiDonato had intonation problems in jumps. Now I feel a little vindicated. Her coloratura technique is much better accommodated by the bel canto repertoire, which is (generally) more step-wise. One thing that really seems to trip up her intonation in baroque coloratura is rising-third figures. There are places in "Con l'ali di costanza", in "Crude furie" and in "Gelosia, spietata Aletto" (from Admeto), where if you did not already know the music, you would not be able to say what notes she is singing. I am still glad though that she is committed to the baroque repertoire.