If the vocal recital is on death’s door, as many say it is, then Joyce DiDonato gave it a shot of adrenaline and maybe even a pacemaker Tuesday evening at Fort Worth’s Bass Hall as part of the Cliburn Concerts series. It may be too late to help this most intimate of musical experiences survive in the era of the Three Tenors belting out O’ Sole mio at the Arena di Verona in front of millions of screaming fans. Can a program of intelligently chosen but relatively unknown arias and songs, sung magnificently, hope to compete with that spectacle? Only time will tell.
If the size of the audience offered any answers, the prognosis is discouraging. A barely half filled Bass Hall told the tale. The valiant DiDonato thanked those in attendance for braving the expected bad weather, but the truth is that gallantry rang hollow. Bad weather wasn’t expected by even the gloomiest of weather forecasters until well after midnight. The recital ended at 9:30 p.m.
DiDonato started out with the heaviest selection on the program. Dressed in black crepe that was asymmetrically off the shoulder, she launched into Haydn’s concert Scena di Bernice, based on an opera libretto but not part of an opera. Death, madness and more death was just the appetizer in this banquet of misery. Had the recital continued in this vein, we all would have slit our wrists by the end. Fortunately, things lightened up quickly.
Some Rossini songs were delightful and a set of lovely songs by Cécile Chaminadea, a composer ignored by the accident of being born a woman, followed. The second half brought a shedding of the widow’s weeds dress and DiDonato emerged in a radiant red and splashily spangled strapless dress, with a train to boot. It brought the biggest ovation of the evening. Disarming the moment, she said it was new and later complained about how difficult it was to walk in it.
Musically, the second half was just as interesting, and unknown, as the first. The famous Willow aria from Otello was first up. Not Verdi’s, but Rossini’s (which predated the Verdi effort). There was one pattern of a few notes that stuck to Verdi when he set the same scene. It was impeccably sung.
Reynaldo Hahn, a composer much-loved by singers and completely unknown to anyone else, followed with a set of songs based on the city of Venice. DiDonato told a funny story about the premiere, where the well-off composer hired a gondola and a piano to sing the premiere himself somewhere on the canals. Her version was much less grand, but equally evocative. Three serenades by three different composers closed the program.
There were two encores. One was an impossibly slow version of “Amaryllis,” a song by Giulio Caccini from the 16th century. Every voice student knows it but it could have been sung twice in the time she took to sing it once. The final encore was the best singing of a night of great singing, an aria from Rossini’s La donna del lago, a new role for her that she has sung in Europe but not yet in the United States (take the hint, Dallas or Fort Worth opera).
As to her voice, it is a perfectly trained and beautiful instrument that can easily navigate all of the coloratura roulades and trills of the Rossini repertoire. She is able to float the most beautiful and focused pianissimo line for entire phrases, indeed, for entire songs. She is a real mezzo, and not a push-down soprano or a push-up contralto. She is able to act without “acting” and she struck the perfect balance between what would be acceptable on stage and what works in a recital.
But there is a however: when she pushed the very top notes, they lost the freedom that the rest of the voice demonstrates. You can hear the vibrato “stick” in place. Yet, this didn’t happen in the Rossini encore―and the notes were much higher (at least to this listener, who admittedly lacks perfect pitch). It must be, then, a matter of forcing the voice beyond its capabilities on these few notes. It is subtle, and probably not heard by 99 perfect of the audience, but it was nevertheless audible. It is to be hoped that she doesn’t force the voice into unfriendly repertoire.
The pianist, David Zobel, was a perfect collaborator. He never missed a note and was with her every step of the way. His perfect hand position reminded me of my early piano teacher who made me practice with quarters on the top of my hands. If they fell off, I was in big trouble. Zobel would have kept those quarters in place until they were collector’s items.
Those who were not in attendance really missed something awesome (as the kids would say) and important (as I would say). By 2 a.m., as I was writing this, it was barely raining outside. Wimps!