Joyce DiDonato: Stella di Napoli (CD review)

Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Riccardo Minasi, Orchestre et Choeur de l'Opera National de Lyon. Erato 08256 463656 2 3.

American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is a performer 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 any of her albums, like this latest one, Stella di Napoli. Although Ms. DiDonato began early on in her career specializing in vocal music of the Baroque and Classical periods, she has greatly expanded her repertoire since then, and the present album finds her in the early Romantic period of Italian bel canto opera.

Ms. DiDonato explains it this way: "When I look to the early nineteenth century in Naples, I envision a world like that of Andy Warhol's neon-lit New Your City int he '60s, or Gertrude Stein's Paris of the '20s: a hotbed of creativity, rife with bold risk-taking, volcanic artistic output which radically altered the existing artistic landscape. It here in Naples that star after star was born, melody after melody, and to connect to this vivid, arrestingly emotional time of 'beautiful singing' now in the early twenty-first century lights up my musical and artistic soul like a supernova. Benvenuto a Napoli!"

On Stella di Napoli ("Star of Naples") Ms. DiDonito sings ten less-than-well-known arias by seven Italian composers: "Ove t'aggiri, o barbaro" from Stella di Napoli and "Flutto che muggi" from Saffo by Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867); "Dopo l'oscuro nembo" from Adelson e Salvini and "Tu sola, o mia Giulietta..." from I Capuleti e I Montecchi by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835); "L'amica ancor non torna..." from Le nozze di Lammermoor by Michele Carafa (1787-1872); "Riedi al soglio" from Zelmira by Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868); "Se fino al cielo ascendere" from La vestale by Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870); "Par che mi dica ancora" from Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth and "Io vi rivedo alfin..." from Maria Stuarda by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848); and "Lasciami" from Il sonnambulo by Carlo Velentini (1790-1853). Ms. DiDonato finds able support from Maestro Riccardo Minasi and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Lyon National Opera.

Ms. DiDonato possesses a robust lyric-coloratura, mezzo-soprano voice, over which she maintains a good deal of control and flexibility. The ten bel-canto numbers found on the program amply confirm the beauty of her voice and her versatility in using it.

The opening number from Stella di Napoli clearly demonstrates Ms. DiDonato's range and adaptability. The song itself offers a number of passages that require her to be rather gymnastic in her virtuosity. In fact, the tune is a bit over-the-top musically, with its variety of elaborations, so the soloist gets a chance to show off her skills from the very outset of the program. It does make quite an impression.

Things settle down after that, with the Bellini selection being tranquil and serene as well as luxurious. And so it goes. The Carafa aria is dramatic and emotive in a largely subdued manner; Rossini is Rossini: robust and showy, with big outbursts from the singer and orchestra; likewise, Donizetti is Donizetti: lightly romantic, lilting, and melodious, with an especially persuasive use of a keyboard glass armonica; and so on.

Throughout every track, Ms. DiDonato shows her mastery of the material. It's a beautiful album from an artist at the top of her game, even though I am not particularly partial to opera and would have preferred a complete opera rather than bits and pieces of things.

To complete the package, Erato/Warner Classics provide a generous booklet of commentary and librettos, plus a light cardboard slipcover for the jewel case.

Producer and editor Daniel Zalay and engineer Hugues Deschaux recorded the songs at Opera de Lyon in October 2013. The orchestral sound is quite dynamic, with strong impact when needed. It also appears nicely balanced--among the instruments themselves and with Ms. DiDonato's voice. The all-important voice is smooth and rounded in a very natural way, sounding most lifelike. I would have liked to hear a bit more depth to the orchestra and chorus, though, which tend, at least at times, to sound in the same plane as the soloist. Well, maybe they were; what do I know. Anyway, the sound is good for a vocal recording: not at all bright or edgy in the loudest passages.


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 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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa