Joyce DiDonato's KC recital last night reiterated (for anyone who has been living in a cave for the last couple years) that she is the real deal--a compelling interpreter and stage presence armed with an exceptionally pure voice and assassin-like technique.
She and collaborator David Zobel designed an interesting and well paced program that reminds one of the unique and refreshing programming freedom that vocal recitals enjoy. This was not to be a program based in the operatic repertoire with which she has taken so very many names (I like this flabbergasted Maury account of her 2009 Carnegie Hall show) but a song recital with operatic shout-outs that highlighted a broader set of skillz.
She kicked it off with some gauntlet throwing--the "Scena di Beatrice" by Haydn--that showcased the full range of her operatic abilities, sans opera. I suppose these sorts of pieces never fully satisfy in recital, but it was nonetheless a marker to be reckoned with. Next up was the first salvo in a series of selections showing off lesser known but very fine works of Rossini, which seemed aimed directly at any haters in the audience (guilty). Here was a lovely, thoughtfully observed quartet of Rossini songs, which DiDonato brought out with some knowing characterizations and beautiful phrasing. Here's Freni in the first selection, "L'invito":
She also dazzled in the next set, selections by a turn of the century French composer, Cecile Chaminade, especially the beautiful "Viens, mon bien aime!" and this virtuosic one about summer and birds (you can imagine).
The second half opened with some more unexpected and amazing Rossini: the treatment of the Willow Song for his Otello. This is a completely gorgeous sequence--what even is the rest of this opera like??? This selection probably included the most seductive music making of the evening--the tightly (but not excessively) controlled, successively quieter final passages had the whole house in rapt silence. Now, I don't want to sound like I'm making a lame reference to her Midwestern roots...but...arg here it comes...the thing about DiDonato is that her vocal power comes from a very pragmatic place. That means that things like soft high notes don't have the kind of head-swimming glamour they might elsewhere; instead there is a forthright precision that shocks in the coloratura stuff she is known for, while that earnest immediacy wins you over in things like the Composer (see below).
Everyone was excited for the following Reynaldo Hahn sequence about Venice, but these might have been the least persuasive. Not sure what the right approach is here, but she was taking a casual, veering close to pedestrian, tack that didn't offer much to draw one's attention. The final trio of Serenades (Pecci, Leoncavallo, and Di Chiara) demonstrated DiDonato's considerable charms--recital funny business is no easy task (combining as it does the terrifying nakedness of the art song recital AND standup comedy) and if not as carefree as her comedy on the big stage, she definitely pulled it off.
Zobel had what I think is the ideal touch for a collaborator in any recital setting. Ever aware of the need to complement the other instrument on stage, he never let the piano drift into the harsh tones and excessive dynamics which always turn jarring and distracting when competing with the solo voice. Not that the piano was static by any means, he drew a wealth of elegant colors to complement DiDonato.
She didn't get into the familiar operatic territory until the first encore, the last aria from Donna del Lago. Having already disarmed the Rossini skeptics in the audience with those interesting late songs, she reminded everyone why she is so (uniquely?) celebrated in this work--the ridiculous technique of course, but also the seriousness and dignity that she imparts to Rossini's music. The final encore was "Over the Rainbow", a gesture to the anniversary of Vocal Arts DC, which was about 75 percent deeply touching and 25 percent maudlin, which are pretty good odds for that kind of thing.
She also peppered the evening with a steady stream of earnest, endearingly twee banter, such that I'm thinking DiDonato may have a second career as an opera-show version of Delilah, which now that I think of it, seems to be all I've ever really wanted from the radio. Maybe the Sirius channel should start diversifying...
Update: Downey and Midgette also enthusiastic (she doesn't really inspire a wide range of opinions)...