Drama Queens (CD review)

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Alan Curtis, Il Complesso Barocco. Virgin Classics 5099960265425.

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. “PiangerĂ² 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.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa