Joyce DiDonato’s star is so much in the ascendant now that she easily packed the Wigmore Hall twice in one week with a programme of largely unfamiliar music. Based on the somewhat all-encompassing theme of love, she explored repertoire ranging from Caccini born 1551 through to Barbara Giuranna who only departed this vale of tears in 1998!
No one is likely to accuse DiDonato of a lack of enterprise or generosity. However, I am not the only one to doubt the compositional quality of some of the repertoire choices.
The programme opened in lively style with a group of songs in the aria antiche style including a pastiche on Pergolesi by the Alessandro Parisotti, Se tu m’ami. So convincing was this forgery that it fooled Stravinsky who included it in his Pergolesi ballet Pulcinella. However the high point for me was Caccini’s gorgeous Amarilli mia bella which prefigures some of Gluck’s operatic arias and showed DiDonato to best advantage. Her opening note swelling from a thread of sound to full voice was a masterful use of technique to serve the song. Elsewhere there were moments where the pianist, David Zobel, seemed not quite to have got the measure of the hall’s responsive acoustics resulting in a harsh edge to the sound.
Four Ariettas from early in Beethoven’s career followed. Unlike much of his later vocal compositions these lacked a clear individual “voice” and could easily have been mistaken for a lesser composer’s work. Using a comparatively limited palette there was little of the testing range, musically or emotionally, that characterises Fidelio. However there were pleasures to be gleaned especially in the two very different settings of the same text by Metastasio, L’Amante impaziente. Version one portrayed the waiting lover as jealous, even shrewish, while the second version was far darker and tragic in tone with hints of suicide.
The big set piece prior to the interval was Rossini’s version of The Willow Song. While it is never going to replace Verdi’s version in my affection, it is a very fine tragic scena for a dark toned soprano or high mezzo. Joined by excellent harpist, Lucy Wakeford, DiDonato did many excellent things but for me did not quite tie the scene together. There were a couple of slightly worrying pitch issues also. She was much better in the unprogrammed excerpt from Maometto II where her wondrous cantilena was used to superb effect.
The second half of the programme consisted of 3 groups of more modern Italian songs. First came four songs by Santoliquido – The best of these was undoubtedly Tristezza crepuscolare where DiDonato’s rising sense of passion achieved a memorable grandeur and L’Incontro which was reminiscent of some of the more hot blooded verismo repertoire.
The second group included the languid Serenata by Toselli which would not seem out of place in an operetta by Lehar and Donaudy’s O del mio amato bene where DiDonato’s fil da voce climax was wondrous. Unfortunately the other songs were less memorable.
A final group of 20th century songs included a serenade to Pierrot by Leoncavallo which had slight overtones of the much more familiar Serenade from Pagliacci and the tantalisingly named Lolita. Sadly this proved to have no connection with Humbert Humbert but the faint familiarity teased my memory bank until I recalled that Pavarotti used to perform it. The best of class in this group was Giuranna’s melismatic, almost jazz inflected Canto arabo, sensuously performed by Di Donato
As so often with solo recitals the encores were the crowning glory of the evening with a sprightly Voi che sapete and a dazzling Tanti affetti, which has one licking one’s lips in anticipation of the rumoured La Donna del Lago at Covent Garden.