Mezzo Watch #3: Joyce DiDonato

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A couple of years ago, I had dinner at an old friend’s house. Over the third glass of wine, we retired to the living room and ended up talking about the Händelfestspiele Halle – and my friend started raving about a Händel duet evening that had aired on TV, but that I had missed. So she dug out her video tape, and it was one of these moments where you think you just discovered the route to Eldorado.

I was instantly hooked by the voice of the mezzo – she didn’t look like one of my usual androgynous mezzo crushes, but there was a warmth and a power to her voice that managed to evoke the dashing swagger I’d dream of in a Handel hero. That mezzo was Joyce DiDonato (next to the stunning baroque soprano of Simone Kermes, of “Amor Sacro” and “Amor profano” fame).

In between the wine and other things, I forgot to ask for a copy of the tape and it wasn’t until weeks later, standing in line at my favorite classical music store, that I caught sight of a Handel duet album with two women on the cover – one of them being Joyce DiDonato.

To cut a long story short: She had me at “Cara…”.

After hearing such exemplary, passionate Handel from her, imagine my surprise when I found out that DiDonato was a lot more famous for 19th century coloratura repertory, especially Rossini. I was skeptical – it was hard to imagine that Handel hero swagger as Rosina or Isabella.

But DiDonato’s ability to be filed both under “hot mezzos in pants” and “hot mezzos in skirts” is indeed impressive. Her voice has the substance to paint the dramatic intensity of a late Handel role, be it male or female, just as well as 19th century repertory. Her tone evokes warmth and has a certain lushness that makes her Rossini women be exactly that: women, and not just girls. Even in all her coloratura ability, even in the smoothest legato arc, there is always a touch of warmth and sheer power that turns the sound into a tale. A tinge of dark color – the shade you would look for in a really good French red – shimmers at the edge of every of her notes, but, of course, especially in her chest register. – And what’s better than a great mezzo? A great mezzo who isn’t afraid to play with dark colors in the chest register.

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As if her voice wouldn’t be enough already, DiDonato is also a good actress who knows to turn natural stage presence into a gripping character portrayal. Just check out Bondy’s production of Handel’s “Hercules” (Yes, more Handel…) where her Dejaneira – the wife of Hercules – and her desperate struggles turn the standard role of the “bitter first wife” into a psychodrama that is at times reminiscent of Schönberg’s “Erwartung” in its intensity.

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DiDonato’s intelligent musicality (which is something else than musical intelligence) is evident in her song recordings. Try, one one hand, her Spanish song album, ¡Pasión!, a collection of miniatures that range from playful to melodramatic (¡very Spanish!). Then, on the other hand, try her American song album, The Deepest Desire with its sober, withdrawn attitude that lets the songs shine without ever making them sound sentimental.

The most recent proof of DiDonato’s ability is her debut as Bellini’s Romeo in Paris – her 19th century verve meeting her 18th century trouser role swagger? Be still my heart! (and count the days until Radio France airs the live recording…)

Blogging about Joyce DiDonato is actually kind of redundant, since she has a blog on her own (a fact that has been mentioned around here a few times already) where she talks about her works and her travels with a passion and enthusiasm that is contagious, sporting a humbleness when it comes towards her own craft that bespeaks a true artist.

In addition to her blog, there is also DiDonato’s official website, which is very well organized, highly personalized and admirably up-to-date. www.joycedidonato.com offers lots of production photos in the gallery section (many of them commented) and also has some audio and video files available, including even a few podcasts.

All in all, DiDonato comes across as the mezzo whom I’d choose, hands down, to have dinner with (well, if anyone gave me a golden apple and asked me to choose a mezzo to dine with). At the end of the evening, perhaps you wouldn’t even have talked about opera, but about photography, food and college sports, but it would have been a perfectly enjoyable evening all the same.

In a time where the transatlantic diplomacy has been suffering severely(politically, not musically) and where a certain kind of US-bashing has become rather popular over here in ‘old Europe’, it is refreshing to see someone who, from my decidedly European perspective, seems to embody so many of the virtues that, over here, are seen as typically American – a mixture of modesty, honesty, unpretentiousness and the ability to be completely and wholeheartedly enthusiastic about something.

From my very personal perspective – the lesbian opera lover one – one of the most interesting aspects of listening to Joyce DiDonato in both her male and her female role portrayals, is her way of vocally embodying gender.

Her Handel heroes are never tomboyish, and even though DiDonato never looks like a man on stage, her trouser roles have something very masculine. It’s the vocal attitude that transforms DiDonato’s clearly female physique into something beyond readily applicable gender stereotypes. And in that space beyond the strict binary, the tale being told shifts to the foreground, allowing for all the shades of gray to search and find a piece of themselves.

When it comes to portraying female characters, on the other hand, DiDonato never makes her heroines look girly. She takes them seriously. She may imbue them with youth or with a touch of ingénue, but they never come across as the girlish coquettes that the classic gender stereotypes prescribe for them.

And that (from the bottom of my feminist heart!) is, quite simply, wonderful to watch.

For DiDonato’s take on the famous “Una voce poco fa”, sit back, kick up your feet and enjoy the following entry.

In something other than my own, uh, words:

Another, quite literally breathtaking, example of DiDonato’s coloratura abilities is this excerpt from the finale of Rossini’s “Cenerentola” (Cinderella), taped this January at the Liceu in Barcelona.

Yes, that is indeed J.D. Florez as Ramiro on the sidelines there –  for some shared coloratura bliss (theirs and the listener’s), here’s the first act duet:

Last but not least… this entry can’t end without some Handel! And to make it truly heavenly, a Handel love duet – “Ah, mia cara” from Floridante. This time, however, DiDonato is singing the female character, Elmira, but as already pointed out, she does both sides equally convincing. Her partner in this case is Serbian contralto Marijana Mijanovic as Floridante. (audio with slideshow only). –

Be prepared to be swept off your feet.

Doubly.


1Photos: homemade screen captures from “Hercules”. Youtube clips with thanks to coloraturafan (Rossini) and Crindoro (Handel). The trademark Wolf Whistle with thanks to Tex Avery’s “Red Hot Riding Hood”

6 thoughts on “Mezzo Watch #3: Joyce DiDonato”

  1. I bought the CD “Amore e gelosia” after reading about it in this blog and I must confess that, since I got it, I just listen to it in a loop.(not sure of the right translation of “en boucle”)

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  2. be sure to check youtube for Capuleti e Montecchi clip (waaaay to Anna-centric, alas) before listening to Radio France on 28th June

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  3. @Jeep Gerhard: thanks for the link! — I had already saved the clip away to post it on the 28th with the RF2 reminder. There could have been more Romeo in there, I agree, but then, I’d simply film nothing but the mezzo if I had to decide…

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    1. has it been that long already?
      (I still have a copy of that Hercules. I also still have the recorded-off-Arte home-burned DVD copy of a Donna Leon sponsored DiDonato/Kermes Handel duet concert (later, it turned into the Ciofi/DiDonato duet recording) 🙂 not that I am much into stars, but into good and honest music-making… and that is a thing that has not changed about JDD, even if her press presence is a lot more polished now with superstardom and all that jazz.

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