Joyce DiDonato, Kansas City's hometown favorite international mezzo-soprano, presented "Drama Queens" to a sold-out and seriously enthusiastic audience Friday night at the Folly Theater as part of the Harriman-Jewell Series.
Winner of the 2012 Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Solo, DiDonato sang her fifth Harriman-Jewell appearance in conjunction with the Nov. 6 release of "Drama Queens," her newest CD.
"Drama Queens" at the Folly was a night of arias sung by royal characters in various Baroque operas. The program will be performed exclusively in this country for the H-J Series and at Carnegie Hall.
"We singers ... are allowed to work out the bulk of our inner demons courtesy of the larger-than-life drama queens we encounter on stage," writes DiDonato in the concert and album program notes.
Perhaps it's self-evident that the performing arts are means of self-expression. Perhaps there's also something to be said for DiDonato's insightful and remarkably candid view of the performing arts as self-help.
"However, the real release and joy comes when we add you, the listener, to the mix" she adds.
The program opener was Antonio Cesti's 1656 "Intorno all’idol mio." It was a shrewd choice because the spare, composed tenor of this hitherto obscure music made DiDonato's trademark vocal fireworks all the more startling.
"Disprezzata regina" from Claudio Monteverdi's 1643 "L'Incoronazione di Poppea" took up most of the first half of the program, which also included 18th century music by Geminiano Giacomelli and Giuseppe Maria Orlandini.
Monteverdi's long aria challenges the singer with a wide range of emotion, from barely maintained composure to rising contempt to self-pity to sorrow to repentance and finally to resignation. There are ample opportunities for disaster here.
Yet DiDonato's queenly stage presence and firm grip of this material navigated her through Queen Ottavia's many troubles with the greatest of style.
Joyce DiDonato's great musicality, her wonderful and perfectly trained voice, and her will to communicate the music she loves to her audience all combined to make Friday night's second half especially rewarding.
It's hard to put the effect into words, but something about hearing the aria "Morte col fiero aspetto” – “Death’s grisly aspect / holds no horror for me” – from Johann Adolf Hasse's 1725 "Anthony and Cleopatra" showed how beautifully trained DiDonato's voice really is, and the depth of experience upon which she can draw in performance.
Hasse was popular in his lifetime. Hearing this aria performed was something like hearing one rock-solid professional calling across the centuries, and getting a response from another. It’s hard to put into words.
The evening's highlight was Cleopatra's aria "Piangerò la sorte mia" in Handel's 1724 "Julius Caesar." It was the evening's best music, and the music that pleased the audience the most.
DiDonato sang eight of the CD's 13 works at the Folly, and her colleagues in "Il Complesso Barocco," an Italian chamber group led on this tour by violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky, accompanied her and also played four orchestral interludes of their own.
Several of the group's low string players wore bright red socks all evening. This was either a little sartorial joke in Italian, or a clear signal that some of them are actually moonlighting at the Curia.
Professional musicians love to find interesting new material, and it's nice that Baroque musicians are reviving music that was once very popular, but is now all but lost to the modern world.
On the other hand, there's a reason some music passes the test of time and some doesn't.
The better the music is to start with, the better Joyce DiDonato sounds. The greatest music is well within her artistic grasp.
One would love to hear Kansas City's international hometown favorite in an all-Handel and -Monteverdi program in the future.