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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa