Rejoyce: The Best of Joyce DiDonato (CD review)

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano. Erato 5099993412124 (2-disc set).

It seems like just a few years ago that American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato was a young, upcoming opera singer. That was well over a decade ago, and she’s already issuing a “best of” album. I suppose that shows my age and how fast time flies. Here, we have a collection of thirty-one selections recorded over a ten-year span and spread over two discs, with half of dozen of the numbers newly recorded (2013).

As I’ve said before, I know next to nothing about opera, despite my having heard a ton of it live and on record over the years. For my taste, most operas are too long, too slow, and too melodramatic for my limited attention span. That said, it’s hard not to like the best operas and doubly hard to resist a good operatic singer like Ms. DiDonato. While most young tenors and sopranos seem to disappear from view after their first performance or two, Ms. 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 she won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Solo in 2012.

Although Ms. DiDonato began early on in her career specializing in vocal music of the Baroque and Classical periods--Handel, Mozart, Rossini--she has expanded her repertoire since then, and the present collection additionally contains works by Bellini, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, even Rogers & Hammerstein and Arlen & Harburg.

Ms. DiDonato possesses a robust lyric-coloratura, mezzo-soprano voice, with a good deal of control and flexibility, which she amply demonstrates on the many tracks offered here. 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 almost anything with her voice, exhibiting a remarkably wide vocal and emotional range.

I won’t try to list all thirty-one operatic arias and popular songs in the album, but I will tell you the composers involved, the accompanying orchestras and conductors, and a few of my own favorite numbers. The music comes from the pens of Handel, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Porta, Orlandini, Giacomelli, Mozart, Gluck, Rossini, Bellini, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Heggie, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Arlen & Harburg. Providing the accompaniment are Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco, Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, Emmanuelle Haim and Le Concert d’Astree, Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante, Kazushi Ono and the Orchestre de l’Opera National de Lyon, Yannick Nezel-Seguin and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Edoardo Muller and Antonio Pappano with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia-Rome, Patrick Summers and the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, John Wilson and the John Wilson Orchestra, and Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony. That’s quite a supporting cast.

Among my favorites, I liked Handel's "Ombra mai fu," of course, a part of which you can hear below. It amply demonstrates Ms. DiDonato's rich timbre and ability to adapt to almost any part. I enjoyed Handel's "Crude furie degl'oridi abissi" not only for the virtuosic nature of DiDonato's voice but for the greater dimensionality of the orchestra behind her. Vivaldi's "Non saria pena la mia" and Orlandini's "Col versar, barbaro, il sangue" show off the singer's gymnastic pliability; Mozart's "Voi che sapete" and "Aprite, presto aprite" display her lighter side.

But trying to find favorites among favorites is a thankless and futile task. Still, I think it was her Mozart and Rossini I enjoyed most. Runners-up, though, include her excursions into Broadway and movies with selections like "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel, “Climb Ev'ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music, and "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz. As I've said, she appears able to do anything, and I confess to shivers of delight with "Over the Rainbow."

Now, I’m sorry if I seem a little vague about who’s recording and releasing what these days, but here we have an Erato/Warner Classics release of recordings made between 2004 and 2013 by EMI, Virgin Classics, and Erato. I think the answer to who and what lies in the fact that Universal Music Group bought EMI in 2012 and subsequently sold the Parlophone Label Group, including EMI Classics and Virgin Classics, to the Warner Music Group. Then Warner announced that they would absorb the EMI Classics artist roster and catalogue into their Warner Classics label, and Erato Records would absorb Virgin Classics. So, I suppose we can look forward in coming years to a ton of old EMI and Virgin material re-released under the Warner or Erato labels. That it will thoroughly confuse the classical-buying public seems a mere afterthought.

Anyway, the sound understandably varies a little from one track to the next due to the time span covered, the different venues, and the number of ensembles involved. However, there is a surprising uniformity among them, all of it miked somewhat closely and sounding slightly “pop” as opposed to most full-scale opera recordings. Most of the items are studio productions, but at least three of them, with the Houston Grand Opera and the Kansas City Symphony, are live recordings and don't sound quite as good as the rest. The voice throughout is often close, very well focused, well defined, with clear but occasionally one-dimensional ensemble accompaniment (although this, too, varies, and the best tracks display a good deal of orchestral depth).

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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