I have to admit I know next to nothing about opera, notwithstanding my having heard a ton of it live and on record over the years. For my taste, most operas are too long, too slow, too melodramatic. That said, it’s hard not to like the best of them and doubly hard to resist a good operatic singer. Which brings me to the disc at hand. Young tenors and sopranos come along by the dozens it seems, each one the next big thing. Most of them disappear from view before long, leaving only a select few to survive. American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is one of the survivors, a woman who has proved her worth over the past decade or so, becoming one of the world’s truly great singers. Gramophone magazine awarded her “Artist of the Year” status in 2010, and one can understand why after listening to her latest album, Drama Queens.
Ms. DiDonato specializes in vocal music of the Baroque period, and accordingly the album comprises thirteen arias from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with Maestro Alan Curtis and the European Baroque ensemble Il Complesso Barocco in accompaniment. The selections are as follows:
1. “Da torbida procella” from Berenice by Giuseppe Maria Orlandini (1676-1760)
2. “Madre diletta” from Ifigenia in Aulide by Giovanni Porta (c. 1675-1755)
3. “Ma quando tornerai” from Alcina by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
4. “Lasciami piangere” from Fredegunda by Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739)
5. “Morte, col fiero aspetto” from Antonio e Cleopatra by Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783)
6. “Piangerò la sorte mia” from Giulio Cesare in Egitto by Handel
7. “Intorno all'idol mio” from Orontea by Antonio Cesti (1623-1669)
8. “Brilla nell'alma” from Alessandro by Handel
9. “Geloso, sospetto” from Octavia by Keiser
10. “Disprezzata regina” from L'incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
11. “Sposa, son disprezzata” from Merope by Geminiano Giacomelli (c. 1692-1740)
12. “Col versar, barbaro, il sangue” from Berenice by Orlandini
13. “Vedi, se t'amo... Odio, furor, dispetto” from Armida by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Ms. DiDonato writes, “Why do we adore these queens of the drama? The answer, for me, lies at the heart of why we have opera: we yearn to open hidden doors to the richest, most complex, utterly human and profoundly moving emotions that we may not be able to access when left to our own devices. The crazy plots and extreme circumstances of the operatic universe give us permission to unleash our often too-idle imaginations.” Fair enough. And certainly the queens, princesses, empresses, and sorceresses of the album’s music provide Ms. DiDonato ample opportunity to exercise her own imaginative vocal skills.
The orchestra delivers a lively complement to Ms. DiDonato’s vocals, creating energetic, enthusiastic performances. In the biggest, most melodramatic numbers, Ms. DiDonato lets go with a commendable dynamism. She isn’t afraid to let her emotions show in these most-emotional of Baroque showpieces. There is nothing of the stuffy scholar here but, rather, full-blown theatrical interpretations.
Ms. DiDonato possesses a robust soprano voice, with a good deal of flexibility, which she demonstrates as the occasion arises. Whether the situation demands a display of love, pain, joy, anger, or sorrow, Ms. DiDonato is ready with the appropriate vocal gesture in a tone so pure, it kept even this non-opera fan in rapt attention. In short, she is able to do anything with her voice, exhibiting a remarkably wide vocal and emotional range.
Virgin Classics recorded the music at Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, in 2012. The acoustic is lightly, pleasantly, reverberant, flattering Ms. DiDonato’s voice nicely. The overall sound, however, is a trifle bright and sharp, giving the instruments and vocals a slight edge. There is a modest air and depth to the sound, though, with a good integration of vocals and orchestral support. It’s certainly a clear, clean sonic presentation, given a modest nod in the direction of a natural, realistic atmosphere. While played too loudly it can get a bit severe, played at a comfortable level it can be quite enjoyable.