Performing Arts

Joyce DiDonato sparkles in her new recording, ‘Stella di Napoli’

Joyce DiDonato cuts loose with operatic razzle-dazzle on her new CD, “Stella di Napoli,” exploring the origins of the bel canto, or beautiful singing, style in opera.
Joyce DiDonato cuts loose with operatic razzle-dazzle on her new CD, “Stella di Napoli,” exploring the origins of the bel canto, or beautiful singing, style in opera.

After Joyce DiDonato’s performance of Maurice Ravel’s deliciously sensual “Sheherazade” on the opening night of the Kansas City Symphony’s new season, the audience was a big puddle of melted butter.

But DiDonato was worried it wasn’t flashy enough, and afterward she told the audience she thought it lacked the “ta-da” factor for opening night.

I suspect that very few in the audience felt cheated by Ravel’s languid and luxurious vocalism. But for those who especially enjoy hearing DiDonato cut loose with operatic razzle-dazzle, she has a new CD just for you.

“Stella di Napoli” explores the origins of the bel canto, or beautiful singing, style in opera.

Elements of bel canto can be heard in opera since the art form began in the 17th century, but it came to full flower in the Italian operas of the early 19th century. Bel canto was less about plot and more about gorgeous legato, impeccable phrasing and rococo ornamentation, as well as vocal fireworks and rapid-fire execution.

DiDonato makes it all sound easy, and that’s why listening to “Stella di Napoli” is such a delight from beginning to end. No matter how ridiculously fast the passagework or treacherously high the note, for DiDonato it’s like breathing. All you have to do is sit back in your easy chair and luxuriate in it all.

Even the most casual opera lover will enjoy “Stella di Napoli,” but opera fans who are tired of the same old chestnuts will find it especially delightful.

DiDonato and her conductor, musicologist Riccardo Minasi, have uncovered some sparkling gems by little-known composers such as Saverio Mercadante, Michele Carafe, Carlo Valentini and Giovanni Pacini. These rarities are so charming and at times spectacular that one hopes they’ll become part of the standard repertoire.

DiDonato also performs arias by the three most famous composers of the bel canto style, Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini and Gaetano Donizetti, but even they are from some of their least-known operas.

An aria from Donizetti’s “Elisabetta al Castello di Kenilworth” was a discovery for me. It has its share of pyrotechnics, but it also has a sweetness and delicacy that warm the heart. And warming the heart, like beautiful singing, is another DiDonato specialty.

Jan Kraybill

Reference Recordings brings the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts’ organ right into your living room with its new release, “Organ Polychrome.”

And with extraordinary organist Jan Kraybill at the keyboard, “Organ Polychrome” is, indeed, a multi-colored showstopper.

Subtitled “The French School,” the disc features a varied program of some of the greatest French organ composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. 19th century organ builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll made France the center of the organ universe, and Kraybill performs works by Charles-Marie Widor and Louis Vierne that were written for Cavaille-Coll’s magnificent symphonic organs.

But it’s not all lush, over-the-top repertoire. Kraybill also performs Jehan Alain’s mystical “Deux Danses a Agni Yavishta” and Alexandre Guilmant’s delightful Caprice in B flat. There’s never a sense of sameness as you listen to the CD. It’s the sort of recording you’ll want to listen to over and over. I know I did.

Kraybill, one of Kansas City’s most respected and loved musicians, is the conservator of the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ, and she knows how to make it purr like a kitten or roar like a lion.

And Reference Recordings’ 24-bit recording captures every detail. The sound is never muddled, and the subtle differences in colors are always clearly discerned. Even when Kraybill is putting the pedal to the metal, and the 5,548-pipe organ is going full bore, there’s a clarity that is thrilling.

This is a CD to give a person who claims he or she hates organ music.

“Organ Polychrome” will blow away any notion that organ music is lugubrious and fit only for funeral homes and horror films. As the motorcycle-riding Kraybill demonstrates, organ music can be as head-banging as Metallica and as charming and sweet as a morning chorus of songbirds.

Philharmonia Quartett Berlin

“Venerable Masters” accurately describes the program the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin will perform Friday night at White Recital Hall.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Bela Bartok and Johannes Brahms are the masters in question, and the members of the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin are masters in their own right. The quartet, founded by the principal concertmaster and section leaders of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1984, is one of the greatest in the world.

The concert is a presentation of Music Alliance, a collaboration between the Friends of Chamber Music and the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance.

7:30 p.m. Friday. White Recital Hall, 4949 Cherry St. $10-$25. 816-561-9999 or

National Acrobats of China

The Chinese take acrobatics seriously.

When I was visiting China several years ago, I attended an acrobat show in a neighborhood theater. It was a theater for locals not tourists, so I got a taste of a really authentic event. I loved it, and so did the crowd. What it lacked in Cirque du Soleil-style artsiness, it more than made up for in vitality and absolute joy.

The National Acrobats of China will bring that authentic Chinese style to the Kauffman Center on Friday night. It’s the first performance on the Harriman-Jewell Series’ 50th anniversary season.

A few years before his death, I ran into Richard Harriman, the founder of the series, at a Chinese acrobat performance at UMKC. Throughout the show he smiled from ear to ear. I was quite happy to see that Clark Morris, Harriman’s successor, made sure the National Acrobats of China were part of the series’ golden anniversary season.

8 p.m. Friday. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $25-$70. 816-415-5025 or

Patrick Neas is program director for You can reach him at