I’ve been thinking back and forth how to approach a review for this show because just writing about arias and how they were sung and played doesn’t cut it in this case. So I will walk you through the experience to my best ability instead.
Initially, I hadn’t even planned to attend the concert, as my 2016 opera budget is gone, but after the U.S. election results and with so much hateful rhetoric making the rounds (the country where I live will quite possibly elect a neo-nazi for President come Sunday), I decided that I needed to hear this concert more than I needed the occasional coffee to go for a month or two. Budget question solved.
(when I walked out today with colleagues for coffee break, without having coffee, I was smiling and thinking “it was so worth it”, and that is perhaps the must succinct feedback I can give for “In War and Peace: Harmony through Music”)
It was an evening to hurry through the streets with one’s collar turned up: dark after a gray day (literally and, regarding the news, figuratively), with a constant drizzle of rain. In that mood, the purist art-deco facade of the Konzerthaus was already a welcome respite:
Wiener Konzerthaus: facade before the concert.
The next welcome sight was the wonderfully diverse audience milling about: there were people of all age groups, and from all walks of life.
Of course part of that is linked back to the history of the house, which was specifically built as a house for the people (and not just for the posh), and part of that original design is the ice rink that is still situated next to the concert hall (in the intermission, from some of the foyer windows, you can glance down and see the skaters make their rounds). Inside the foyer, old and young mingled, the usual upper bourgeois and people who would never be considered that, and conservatives season ticket holders next to visibly identifiable queers – both gays and lesbians, both hipster and more humble.
Monogram Mosaic in the entrance. Wiener Konzerthaus.
Entrance Hall at Wiener Konzerthaus.
Still on display: the old alert system for show starts in the different halls.
The audience had ample time to eye each other beforehand because the doors opened late; and upon walking into a nearly dark hall, the reason became apparent: DiDonato was already present on the stage (together with dancer Manuel Palazzo) – the singer welcoming the audience into the space she has curated, a hostess more than a star to be beckoned in by clapping. A small detail, perhaps, but a meaningful one that helped to set the mood for an extraordinary concert, and an extraordinary experience overall.
Joyce DiDonato at Wiener Konzerthaus: present already before the concert started.
To every seat, in this near-dark hall – which already set a mood more intimate than a normal, bright pre-concert space – an envelope was pinned:
“In War and Peace: Harmony through Music” is designed as an immersion experience, trying to reach the listener on more than just one level.
The tour has a website, with a large interactive module where you are invited to share your concert experiences, or your take on achieving peace. This approach translates to the actual tour, from DiDonato being present when the audience enters, to the Hallmark card (no, really) for every listener, with an invitation to share one’s own path towards peace on an enclosed card. The cards were later collected in boxes in the foyers that were set up in a way that seemed respectful of people’s participation and involvement.
To someone like me (very German, very Lutheran – as soon as there is a single ornament that cannot be scaled down to function, and someone addresses me personally, I get nervous), the approach might have appeared ‘a bit much’ at first, but I could witness all around me that this more personal address was working (and whom am I kidding, it also worked on me, and of course I participated and filed my card in the end).
“Oh that’s nice!” the two ladies behind me exclaimed.
People were opening their cards, shielded by the half-dark, with notable delight.
Next to me, a woman was reading the ‘Message from Joyce’ to her husband in broken English, translating on the go to her best ability, and he – who clearly tried at first not to be taken by it – was drawn in and began to ponder in earnest what to write onto the answer card in the intermission.
No matter your stance on the ‘staging’ of this concert, there is no denying that it has been curated with great thoughtfulness. And, yes, DiDonato is a superstar, but at no point you get the impression that this is just a staging to showcase her, or to sell her new album: at no point this evening does feel less than authentic, everything is delivered with love and integrity.
As an audience, I would not have needed some of the elements to enter into communication with the music – the video projections, or the near darkness, or the dancing. But these elements continue the approach of drawing in people on multiple levels. And they serve two purposes, in that on one hand, they establish a link for those who are perhaps not as accustomed to the usual concert communication, and on the other hand, they break those who are accustomed to it (like me) out of the safely distanced mold of ‘concert mood’.
The video projections are droplets and flower leaves, vague images of motion and aggression, someone taking off a veil of mourning, abstract swirls of color.
The parts of choreography with (and done by) Palazzo, who is bare-chested and in bare feet throughout, add a level of physicality – also of gender balance – that make it difficult to forget that there are bodies on the stage, and bodies in the audience: breakable, vulnerable, actual bodies who share a space. It was another anchoring undercurrent for this evening.
The darkness – reminiscent more of the theatre – made me realize how much we are used in concerts to be able to look at the musicians and gauge their reactions. With that level all but gone, the focus had to move elsewhere, though I admit I missed being able to see the players, to connect their playing to their faces.
I was curious at this point to see how the audience would react to the “staged” singer, to the purposeful dramatics of the evening. There are choreographed poses and turns, there is overt stage make-up and there are dramatic robes (and even I, underwhelmed as I am by fashion beyond the occasional well-tailored white shirt, have to admit: those robes are something else, with all their theatrical flow and sparkle).
You could call it theatralics or trappings, only that I don’t like the pejorative slant of that because while they may be props, they were not empty gestures. Overall, it felt as if the concert employed drama to make its point, and not to make drama in absence of a message.
The program is entirely Baroque, in the majority Handel and Purcell. It ends up as a side note in an evening centered on the larger-than-life question of peace, but it is just as quietly revolutionary to have a mainstream classical singer star (as opposed to a specialized period singer) do a large tour with a program that is unapologetically Early Music, and with a period band to boot. (yes, I know, Bartoli, but Bartoli is her own category)
DiDonato is well-versed in Baroque, Handel in particular, and it is one in many interesting impressions of this evening that the dramatics of the Italian pieces with their more flamboyant diction seem to suit her even more than the English oratorio ones.
From the start – “Scenes of horror”, from Handel’s Jeptha – it is clear that DiDonato is a singer at the top of her game. The voice carries easily in the large hall, fills it with near effortless soar and with a core sound that is full and luscious without losing contour. In comparison, I would say she sounded warmer in tone here than in her Staatsoper recital in April (and, on a side note, she looks better than ever. And I don’t just mean that as stating that, yes, she was very attractive in appearance (we will be over the hair in approx. 20 years. Perhaps.), but also that she seemed palpably in sync with herself: someone doing something that makes them happy, with great conviction).
‘Baroque becomes her’, my notes read. And while DiDonato produces a sound whose power the ear revels in (not in that it is overwhelming, but in that it seems to fit both her and the hall just right), there are also the instances, right away in this Jeptha excerpt, where she ties vibrato down to a point that is near non-existent.
Il Pomo d’Oro proves to be a good partner for her, in music and in dramatic gusto, with vivid chiaroscuro and moments of both playfulness and aching clarity. Under the cembalo-playing direction of Maxim Emelyanychev, the band gave structure, but never seemed to be a background element.
Possibly, DiDonato is at her best when she has not just a piano, but a band and a stage, and an edge of drama, which allows her to go for an emotional and musical range that does not confine itself to a measured hand on the piano and a square black book under her arm.
The second aria is ample prove of that – “Predi quel ferro, o barbaro!” from Leo’s Andromaca, both wildly dramatic and then opening up isles of softness for a heartbreaking, repeat “figlio, perdonami”, only to raise goosebumps with DiDonato’s both-barrels take on the word “genitrice”.
Already after this aria, there was more applause than I have ever heard within an ongoing concert recital. The evening segued into an instrumental De’ Cavalieri that drove home the point of just how much Il Pomo d’Oro is an Early Music ensemble: I am not sure whether it’s the gut strings or the tuning, but they managed to draw up a near medieval soundsphere, sharp like white morning light, creating a sound with both density and clarity (also, they wear white shirts and vests. All of them. As if I wasn’t completely gone over them already!). They play in a very small cast, with the voices close to soloist, and in a seating order that had e.g. the lute in between two strings.
At this point, my notes say ‘Wait, is she in her bare feet?’ – it’s a gesture (apart from cultural codifications of home and ritual) that might have seemed pretentious, but it came across as humble here and was another step away from the poised diva in robes and heels singing a concert.
It was another detail in this evening that made me think, “I guess only DiDonato could pull off this level of grand gesture and still have it feel authentic.”
It was back to Purcell with a Chaconne, and then with Dido’s Lament – once more a popular choice, where DiDonato’t employ of vowel color stood out, to keep the sound slender and deliver some beautiful linework. What I remember most is a haunting, near suffocated “remember me”.
More precious than the lengthy, enthusiastic applause after the Leo piece were the two, three seconds of absolute silence after this one.
Up next, the “Pensieri” scene from Handel’s Agrippina started with a messa di voce completely void of vibrato. (yes, she can do that) It is another piece offering a range of emotions and of grand gestures that DiDonato took on with fervor. The winded, guttural-ending final phrase of the A part reads “fangirling to the max.!” in my notes, whereas for the reprise, they simply read “Aaaaahhhhh!!!!”
At the end of the aria, DiDonato curls up on the floor, in her bare feet, her face visible to the audience. And while it is poses that carry through the following instrumental Gesualdo (“Tristis est anima mea”), I don’t think I’ve ever seen a singer making themselves vulnerable and emote quite this way in a concert performance: a way of inviting the audience to experience through their own emotions, and their own body, channeling the atmosphere and bearing witness to it.
Once more, Il Pomo d’Oro proves to be an excellent fit here: more searing intensity than comfortable lushness, highlighting the structure, but not shying away from having it be meaty (only from drowning it in sauce – I apologize for my metaphors today, but in my defense: it was Thanksgiving). Particularly in this Gesualdo, Il Pomo d’Oro sounded almost like a string quartet in their dialog-like exchanges, punctuating that mood of equal give-and-take.
The mood changes again for the final aria before the intermission, Handel’s well-worn “Lascia ch’io pianga”, with Il Pomo d’Oro offering a warm-tinged space upon which the vocal line could work with a stronger focus on tonal beauty. Perhaps because of that focus, the slightly metallic edge of vibrato in the full-out top register was notable (similar to my impressions in April).
As an aria, I recognize I am not the intended audience for it: I have heard it too many times to not crave a more specialized reading. It proved a perfect choice for the audience, though, since more people recognized it – there were happy sighs when the music set in, and someone behind me even hummed along for a line. It was the kind of concert where no one turned around to shush them: it was an acknowledgement of the evening resonating, not an intrusion.
Enthusiastic applause and hollering from the younger folks led to the intermission. Since I was on my own, I had a chance to listen to the people around me earnestly contemplating ideas of peace – “And then we write, people can find it in your concerts,” the husband next to me suggested to his wife.
The still-dark hall during the intermission: Right Balcony of the Big Hall at Wiener Konzerthaus.
After the “War”-titled first part, the second part of “Peace” started off with Purcell – “They tell us that you mighty powers” from The Indian Queen. If I had to choose, I would say that the first part of the evening, also with its emotional set-up, was more starkly gripping, but there were flashbacks to its intensity, as in the phrasing of “for my passion such grief I endure”, or the unbearably thinned-out take on “…pains.”
“Crystal streams in murmurs flowing” from Handel’s Susanna, in turn, was flowing rivers or tonal beauty, both from Il Pomo d’Oro and DiDonato, down to the motion of the dress (now light blue instead of studded thundergray): another detail added to the immersion scale.
For me, vocal home turf was the Handel (“Da tempeste” from Giulio Cesare): the voice opened up splendidly, fuller with range given, with just enough core, but never harsh, never throughout losing the lush warmth of it, not even in the coloratura dazzle that DiDonato delivered with palpable enjoyment. The band likewise seemed about to jump from their seats with energy. By the end of that – a breathtaking, super-smooth end – I was grinning broadly, people once more kept and kept on clapping, and I saw many smiles on the faces around me. The husband next to me voiced a shy, but repeated “Brava!”, as if he was unaccustomed to doing it, but feeling inevitably compelled to offer that praise.
And while the mood was already pretty bedazzled at this point, and there’s a more elaborate solo number for Palazzo to Arvo Pärt in between, the actual showstopper comes next, with a bit of posing/acting, as one of the the musicians (I tried to google, it might be Anna Fusek, if she got a haircut? Or does the band have more than one member who excels on both violin and flute?! I might need medical assistance in that case.) is beckoned forward and segues into the elaborate ‘piccolo recorder’ (what is the correct term here?) intro to “Augelletti” from Handel’s Rinaldo.
And oh DEAR GOD. Other than mad virtuoso skills, the recorder solist – a tall, slender figure on that half-dark stage – had a fabulous haircut (taking a cue from the singer there…), a way to wear a somewhat unbuttoned white shirt and that vest that likely had every queer-identified person in the audience get a little light-headed, and who simply proceeded to charm the hell out of the hall. At first, I wasn’t even sure whether they were male or female, and really, does it matter? (when they sat down again with their recorder, I could make out the Louboutin soles in the footlights. But the actual important information is ‘sat down again. Put away the recorder, upon which crazy mastery levels had just been displayed, to then pick up a violin and join the band with that without missing a beat’. Wow.)
So. Mad recorder virtuoso skills. Then, DiDonato, unable to curb a smile, stepped in, showing off mad vocal coloratura skills in a very playful-flirtatious exchange between band, recorder and singer. I dare you to find a single audience member who did not get a little bit swoony over this number.
It had the musicians interacting and giving each other space, visibly having fun, with more spontaneity and playfulness. It was a mood that transported into the final program number, Jommelli’s “Par che di giubilo” (from Attilio Regolo), that was simply reveling in its own musicality: Home Run.
DiDonato appeared relaxed here as she kept weaving through the other musicians. It came across as personal, as essential music-making, and as simply having fun, too. It was obvious that she loved singing this way, and it was infectious.
The applause took a while to quiet down to a point at which DiDonato could deliver a longer, personal address to the audience. She apologized for doing so in English, and not in German (let me quote verbatim, dear White Shirt crowd: “my terrible, Octavianesque German, which is all the German I speak – Wie du warst, wie du bist…”).
She did address her path of peace as “trying to love”, something she said she was reminded of recently, after a sleepless night many of her fellow Americans had shared (there was laughter and spontaneous applause, though DiDonato insisted that she did not mean to be political. That laughter gave me courage, though – I don’t want to believe that anyone who was present and truly listened to this concert can go out in good conscience on Sunday and vote for the neo-nazi).
I didn’t know that DiDonato designed this concert as an answer to the Paris attacks from November last year, centered around the question “Does art really matter? Does it make a difference?” This concert, she said, would be her answer of “I hope so. I really, really hope so.”
And, fine, I am embarrassed but not ashamed to say that her speech made me cry. Which just goes to say that the program reaches people, and that she – and her colleagues – do make a difference.
As a single encore, DiDonato sang Strauss’ “Morgen”, which was also the song that moved her April recital at the Staatsoper to another level entirely. She has struck a remarkable connection with this song, and it appears again here, as the sole 20th century piece, in a small-orchestra arrangement with a period band including a lute (which I have definitely not heard before). Il Pomo d’Oro adapted well, unafraid to take on that repertory, trying out un-Baroque avenues, yet not losing their core sound.
Perhaps the choice would have seemed eclectic in another program, but in this one, it fit just fine. “It’s really the only way to end this concert,” DiDonato said, and the hopeful slant carried through. There was lots and lots applause and hollering and stomping, and the man next to me daring to more enthusiastically call out, “Brava”, and the clapping branded up again and again. By the end of it, the parquet was nearly entirely on their feet, while the artists, relatively fresh into their tour, seemed honestly delighted and, dare I say, moved.
One answer to the question of “Does art really matter?” is this concert itself. It is an evening of very well sung, very well played Baroque, both moving and dazzling, but the more important part is the shared experience, the overall slant of people listening to one another: to an artist in song, musicians to each other, to handwritten thoughts on peace on C6 cards.
It was palpable in walking out: people sported involuntary smiles and shining eyes and there was more small talk between strangers, as if the evening had worn down the barriers between them just a little bit.
And if DiDonato has achieved that, through her singing, and through her way of communicating with her audience on this evening? Then she has already proven her point.
Look whom I met in the intermission on the balcony foyer, as if he knew that he would be called upon for the encore: Richard Strauss!
[While I am not sure what the main staircase marble relief is called, I am opting for “Lesbians taking their child to his first violin lesson and resigning themselves to a first year of challenging sounds”]
If you can make your point going all out, why not go all out? – Thoughts on the Konzerthaus ceiling and others on this concert night.