Joyce DiDonato made a stop with her “Journey Through Venice” concert program, together with pianist David Zobel, at Wiener Staatsoper last night (this picture was taken a quarter before the show started, hence the empty seats).
“An American in Venice” is something that can go a lot of ways (think of that early supporter of DiDonato’s career, writer Donna Leon, who makes a living off of it and throws the occasional queer opera singer into the mix).
Before last night, I had not heard Joyce DiDonato live and I was very much looking forward to it. My concert companion only got a last minute standing room ticket; he hadn’t been enthusiastic about going and only made up his mind at the last minute. When we walked out again well over two hours later, we were quiet, and then he said “I underestimated her.”
Unpopular admission? I was a little hesitant going in myself. I’ve been following DiDonato’s career for well more than a decade (I remember watching, in a friend’s house, a taped TV broadcast from Händelfestspiele Halle, where she sang a duet program with a then likewise not yet famous Simone Kermes, and I recall sitting up straighter (or, as it were, gayer) as DiDonato sang) and in the oiled PR machine of mega stardom that she has reached now, much deserved as it is, sometimes all I can see is glamorous veneer.
As someone who was taken by her humanity, her work ethics and her approachability (and her photography skills) back in her blogging heydays, the perfected cover shots of recent albums and projects feel a little more shallow at times. Then again, I’m a pragmatic Northern European, which is likely as far away from U.S. Southern politeness and self-presentation as it can get.
DiDonato didn’t have it easy last night. The Vienna audience took well past the first part to warm up to her and there was an inordinate amount of coughing in the house (“There are things called cough drops for a reason,” I wanted to yell at various points. “Look them up. Take them. But keep them in quiet containers!”). She shouldered
(and what attractive shoulders they are) through that and tirelessly strove to connect with the audience (and she did succeed eventually, but she should not have had to work so hard for it). Already from the very beginning, she made a point of looking up to the cheap ranks, too, and by that gesture, she had pretty much won me over.
It set a general mood, which extended to her moderations that were a mix of charming and enthusiastic: It was an evening of sharing a space with an audience, not of singing for an audience at a distance. I’d like to point out that she used the chance to throw some shade at recent political developments in the South, too. Props to her guts. It is so good and so important to have singers who are not afraid of speaking up, especially in front of more conservative audiences.
The program is a stylistically varied one, tied together by the theme of Venice:
- Vivaldi’s “Onde chiare che sussurate” and “Amato ben” (from “Erole su’l Termodonte”),
- Cinq mélodies de Venise (op. 58) y Fauré, on poems from the “Fêtes glantes” and “Romances sans paroles” by Verlaine:
- “Mandoline” (from Fêtes galantes)
- “En sourdine” (from Fêtes galantes)
- “Green” (from Romances sans paroles)
- “À Clymène” (from Fêtes galantes)
- “C’est l’extase” (from Romances sans paroles)
- Rossini’s “La regata veneziana” from vol. I of his “Péchés de vieillesse”:
1. “Là su la machina”
2. “Ixe qua vardeli povereti”
3. “Ciapa un baso”
- The Willow Song from Rossini’s “Otello”
- “Songs of Venice” by Michael Head:
1. The Gondolier
2. St. Mark’s Square
3. Rain Storm
- Five songs from “Venezia” by Reynaldo Hahn:
1. Sopra l’acqua indormenzada
2. La barcheta
4. Che pecà
5. La primavera
The opening number is, to me, endlessly familiar through the Bartoli Vivaldi album, and my first thought was how DiDonato’s voice is bigger. Bartoli is a Fragonard in comparison: I am not sure what DiDonato would be, but by size, at least Waterhouse. Perhaps Waterhouse in Raphael colors.
I found her voice different in live performance. There is a range around the middle, which she shapes a bit more gutturally, but that’s not the cause for the somewhat ‘sfumato’ kind of sound: my ears squinted like my eyes do without the glasses, trying to pinpoint it. As soon as the tone moves up, though, it’s the characteristic gleaming columns of sound, those anchored, bronzen rises out of the middle. The first song was still a bit structured by overly clear consonants and only took flight when she employed quick trills, the edges purposefully smoothed, cooing in tune with the evoked turtle dove – its elegant amber retreating into the shade – and on a technical level, it showed her command of dynamics.
The only quip I have, and it might be a general timbre thing in live performance with her, or my place in the auditory, is a slight sharpness, in a sense of loss-of-roundness, in the tightly packed vibrato up the higher middle in the more powerful tones. Not on all occasions, but there were a few instances. Though right after one of those, she pulled the tone into an easily controlled pianissimo, so it’s not really a struggle with technique per se.
The Fauré songs, for me, are a callback to my coming out (Monet’s “Le Palais Contarisi”, and Barbara Hendricks’ Fauré album on constant repeat… ah, memories). DiDonato announced them as works on color, and she clearly put a lot of work into that aspect and into the French diction: her shading works really well. My favorite is – always has been – “Le donneurs de serenades…” and her legato line particularly in that one was beautiful.
She kept making contact with all the different ticket price levels, and in the Fauré, I finally stopped to look at David Zobel at the piano and marveled, not for the last time during the night, how gently he played.
The second – “En sourdine” – has the final line of “le rossignol chantera”. I was still thinking about tight vibrato, and how to classify that, and then she shaped this “chantera” and it was the most perfect, even sound, with the tiniest organic ripple on the surface. I kind of forgot about everything else at that point.
Even in the Fauré, it was obvious that DiDonato does not do emotional distance. But she does this “not doing it” very well.
The gears shifted when she could start playing with the music and act a little throughout Rossini’s “La regata veneziana”: I had the impression that the Rossini is more innately comfortable to her: the sound was not produced, it seemed to happen on its own. The applause was immediately warmer, too.
The repeated “no te incantar” in the first song was fantastic, interacting with the words, their corporality, their rhythm. Likewise in the second, the way she caressed the “Caro” in “Caro, caro, par che el svola”: definitely something to write home about. The third paints a more flirtatious mood which she depicts easily, and there, suddenly, her voice opens in the higher middle, the small-spaced vibrato is there, but now it is even and sits on the breath with no hint of a distortion.
DiDonato threw kisses into the audience at the end of that one before she walked offstage for the intermission.
The first two sections had felt a bit like every affect had seen meticulous planning, and she got better, to me, the more she left that path and allowed her knowledge of the program to give her some space to move freely.
The second part of the evening started with the Willow Song from Rossini’s “Otello”, the only operatic scene of the evening. DiDonato commits to the point of crossing herself before getting to the prayer part – a little over the top, at this point?
The best part, I thought, were the lines of medium-speed legato where she gets to show sense of phrasing and technical mastery rolled in one, but then she got to the small recit bits, and the cry of “ah, m’ingannai!” was even better, and more touching. And she did a velvety, velvelty “ai miei lamenti”.
The Michael Head songs seem to be pieces she really connects to; the first one, on the gondoleer’s call, is beautiful and fits her like a glove. She gets to show soft entrances into tones, combined with a small messa di voce here and there – sounds so smooth you cannot even pinpoint the disruption in the air when they start, and then she lets one of them sink back into a sheer endless piano, so quiet that it barely stirs the air any longer, yet it still carries, as if from far away.
The third and final song has more a impulsive impetus, and there is one line about “the city is GRAY” where my notes just read: “THAT NOTE!”. Also, the end of the song – of Venice being more beautiful than any other city – is delivered with more than just skill and elegance.
Before tackling the final set of Hahn songs (my initiation into that repertory was Susan Graham’s recording, so I am predisposed to cite velvet and whiskey here), DiDonato spoke of a time “When the Art of Seduction was nothing like…” *mimicks texting*.
It got a laugh, but then we truly got into the art of seduction. The energy of the Hahn songs works well for DiDonato, allowing her to sculpt and to shape, staging the outbursts and the gentle lines (again, wonderful back-and-forth with Zobel!). I found myself smiling without meaning to at the first already, which is the best of signs.
My favorite of these songs is “La barcheta”, already in DiDonato’s interpretation. It is devastatingly sensual, in a la-ci-darem-la-mano turned into a somewhat subtler, but no less driven, step-into-my-gondola mood.
DiDonato stands up straighter for this, her pose stiller than before. She does not try to act any young man here; it is just the song. The rubati last night were less than in the recorded version (and they are dizzying there in the best possible way), there was more focus, it seemed, on the pulse of the legato line as it subtly rose and fell and wrapped around the audience. (DiDonato might need a pretty big gondola after that one.)
And on a related note, I say thank you, for this song in particular. Thank you to DiDonato for lending that precious voice, for the span of a few minutes, to voicing the attempt (likely successful, whom are we kidding) of seducing a woman. Thank you for not policing away the inherent queerness, and for treating desire as universal.
I have been thinking a lot about representation lately, and moments like this one last night continue drive home how much it matters, even to someone like me, who is able to live out and proud for the most part, and has done so for nearly 20 years (my notes read: “I am sold!”).
Throughout the Hahn songs, the coughing in the audience finally ebbed away. DiDonato seemed likewise focused and at ease, and I took note of how her consonants now blended perfectly, like ripples and waves creating textures, into her line, different from the initial Vivaldi, rendering her portrayal now sensual and un-stilted.
The third of the Hahns, “L’avertimento”, is a gem with lots of seria spirit and style. The only song she left out was “La biondina in gondola”, which, well, would have been VERY gay (though I suspect that the reason to cut it was more that the mood is very similar to “La barcheta”, even some of the lyrics are the same, so it would have been repetitive).
The fifth Hahn song, she explained a bit more to set the stage: it is the complaint of an aging blue-collar husband – also, yes, please, keep talking to me about sleeveless white shirts – who is bitching about his wife. It’s hysterical, but, beyond the theatrics, the employment of tone is splendid. DiDonato is not acting because she has to cover a failing technical grasp, her technique is shining through her acting.
The Hahn was my favorite, and to me, her best acts of the evening were the young man (or person?) of “La barcheta” and the old man of “Che pecà”.
As the evening progressed, the show seemed less calculated (‘calculated’ not in a bad way, necessarily – to carry a generously long solo program with no instrumental pieces scattered in between, you need to think economically), and less of a show. It simply turned into a space of something like shared joy – perhaps even shared humanity. By the final set of Hahn songs, DiDonato had, at long last, won over the entire hall.
The moments that rang most true to me, however, were in the encores. But before I get to those, let me get the fashion questions out of the way:
Hair: yes, it’s true. It’s the most fabulous, bi-curious haircut you could imagine, and she rocks it (boy, does she ever). Even she herself cannot stop touching it, and I think large parts of the audience could sympathize with that.
Outfits: Two (which means I won the bet, my companion had voted ‘three’). The first one was “Ursula The Sea-Green Witch” (I’ve always had a soft spot for Ursula) with billowing skirts, showcasing a very nice neckline, and shoulder line, and back line (as we walked out into the intermission, my companion said, “These balcony tickets definitely come with a view.” I could not argue with that). The second one, I would dub “Swainson’s Lorikeet went to Miami”: long-sleeved, high-necked, floor-length, tailored for a close fit along the upper body. She rocked that one, too (of course).
Back to the encores. The first one was “Tanti affetti” from Rossini’s “La donna del lago”, which was another complete change of gear and was cool as 60s jazz, and stunning in technique. “I’ll just show you what else I can do with my voice, after a two hours song program, and I’ll basically destill all the stops of belcanto into four minutes, enjoy. Oh, and please remember to breathe.”
In the late 1990s, there was a song called “Freestyler” which, for a while, was the epitome of coolness. And even that was not as effortlessly foxy as this Donna del Lago. My notes just say “Home Run!”.
Next to me, two elderly Russian perms folded their hands after three claps and looked down onto the podium with reserve. (Anik’s notes: “I cannot help you. Nobody can help you.” After the next song – I’ll get to that in a minute – the addendum reads “Not even Jesus can help you!”)
The next encore, announced as the final goodnight, was “Somewhere over the Rainbow”. It was not operatic at all. It was gentle, and heartfelt. The Germans say “innerlich“.
Oh, DiDonato masters those segues, and she has soaring, perfectly tempered notes, but even more than technique, her performance had heart. I was on the verge of tears there, and I remember thinking “What an ally!”
The audience last night was not flamboyantly queer, but there were many people whom you’d recognize as gay at second glance. Many men, also a few women, none of them on the overtly glamorous side. It seems DiDonato does draw in the gay crowds, but the quieter ones. Perhaps that was another reason why “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” resonated so richly in the room last night. To some, Kansas is home, to others, it is a song that takes them away from any clear geography that continues to shun them. DiDonato gave them a place.
The atmosphere notably shifted with this song, gaining another quality altogether. The audience kept on clapping, and then DiDonato, in a move that did not seem prepared, pulled out Strauss’ “Morgen”.
“Morgen”, of all songs!
It is very tricky to integrate into song programs, let alone at the end, because it stages a very solemn mood, and it has a lengthy intro and ending, so you really need to keep the tension and the only way to do that is to make yourself vulnerable and put yourself out there to carry it. It has long archs, but other than that, it is not a showpiece at all. It depends so much just on the right amount of personal pathos without letting it slide into larmoyance. I loved this piano version, with no distracting solo violin or orchestra carpet, even though it puts tremendous weight onto the singer. And DiDonato carried it. Bravely, and beautifully.
After that song, there were nearly ten seconds of complete silence in the hall. People who had already rushed off to the coats racks had returned, quietly, and stood in the open doors. No one coughed, and DiDonato sang, and a good concert evening suddenly turned into a transporting one.
At some point in the early days of this blog, when I first wrote about DiDonato, I said that I’d choose her as a dinner companion for a night, not even to talk about singing, but to talk about food and politics and the arts in general. I had to think of that last night.
Joyce DiDonato is a very good singer, but she might be an even better human being. Perhaps that is her secret, and perhaps that shines through her art.