Challenging fear, turmoil, hate and chaos with the sublime beauty of the Baroque, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and Il Pomo d’Oro brought their project “In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music” to the Folly Theater Wednesday night, presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series.
This was no typical diva-in-the-spotlight recital. Trying to combat the distress and grief that followed the Paris terrorist attacks, Prairie Village native DiDonato imagined a project with a greater global message and longer lasting influence. The project, along with the album and international tour, includes a website, inwarandpeace.com, devoted to gathering answers to the question: “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?”
DiDonato’s response was this cathartic exploration from sorrow to celebration in dramatic song using favorite works, from George Frideric Handel and Henry Purcell to lesser-known voices from the era. The concert also included instrumental interludes to highlight the exceptional orchestra on period instruments, conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev at the harpsichord.
Dancer/choreographer Manuel Palazzo served as responsive foil to DiDonato’s characters, as son, lover, enemy, deserter. (Though he made the best of the situation, the Folly’s stage was cramped with the orchestra, floor lighting and some set pieces, allowing very little space for movement.)
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As the audience filtered in chattering, DiDonato and Palazzo sat onstage, immobile but not impassive, in austere silence. The staging of the concert, directed by Ralf Pleger, attended to the rawest emotion of each work with impressive dramatic effect, the performance divided into “War” and “Peace.”
Beginning the first portion, DiDonato shielded her eyes against Handel’s “Scenes of horror” as subtle images of flames flickered on the back wall, mixed with the shadow of the musicians. This tense, abstracted video design by Yousef Iskandar added immensely, as did the dramatic lighting from Henning Blum.
But nothing was more telling than DiDonato’s theatrical abilities, coming forth in the contrasts of Leonardo Leo’s “Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro!” as her tone turned spiteful, filled with vindictive consonances.
Exquisite gowns in steel-colored silk (designed by Vivienne Westwood) enhanced the performance as well, along with dramatic makeup of bruised rose-pink and silver. In Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament,” DiDonato clasped a gossamer cloak that shimmered like mercury around herself, her “remember me” fading to flawless pianissimo.
Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga,” which completed the first portion, was the emotional turning point, with DiDonato seated on the floor at the front of the stage, humble and self-sacrificing.
In “Peace,” DiDonato’s attitude was one of wonderment, smiling during “Crystal streams in murmurs flowing,” as though telling a precious, girlish secret. The style became more virtuosic and flamboyant, her trills and ornaments matching — no, exceeding — the nimble instrumental line in “Da tempeste il legno infranto.”
DiDonato was not the only virtuoso onstage, though. Following Palazzo’s muscular, controlled dance solo to Arvo Pärt’s instrumental “Da pacem, Domine,” they transitioned to Handel’s celebration of bird song in “Augelletti, che cantata,” featuring recorder player Daphna Mor.
Then, with a flirty flick of her skirt, DiDonato maneuvered her way though the vocal acrobatics of Niccolò Jommelli’s “Par che di Giubilo” with an ease that has made her famous, ending the program on a joyous and sweet diva moment.
Following the standing ovation, she addressed the audience directly for the first time and, paying special attention to the students in the front rows, spoke of her fears and her hope and the serenity she wished to inspire through her message and abilities as she has traveled to Paris, Brussels, London and Kansas City.
Her last remarks, though, were made through music, with a final encore on Richard Strauss’ timeless “Morgen!” and the encouragement to nurture one’s inner light so to find the strength to help others. On the darkened stage, with no theatrical distractions or thematic pretensions, DiDonato seemed to glow in the spotlight as she sang with a quiet smile — her song, like herself, a beacon of peace.