Songplay Review 2019: Joyce DiDonato Dazzles In Diverse & Engaging Program Selection

By Ching Chang
The last time the formidable mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato appeared at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, she concocted a program centered on an off-the-shelf theme labeled “War and Peace,” serving as the justification to string together a splendid collection of arias and laments. Set within a choreographed concert with a fairly substantial mise-en-scène, any pretense of that evening’s concept and symbolism inevitably transmogrified into a celebration of Ms. DiDonato’s singing, showcasing her considerable personal charisma as she rendered jaw dropping vocalism in dizzying feats of belcanto bravura.

Fast forward two years, I was a bit apprehensive before the mezzo’s appearance at the same Berkeley venue earlier this week, when another seemingly half-cooked theme entitled “Songplay” was offered, structured as a program that promised to mix the charming and didactic arias from the Schirmer’s anthology of Italian songs (typically used by first and second year voice students) along with a jazz combo and “American Songbook” style variations, with a Duke Ellington standard thrown in for good measure.

The event’s promotional artwork, depicting the mezzo in playful photos with bright red balloons and wearing top hats, wasn’t exactly reassuring either, triggering fears that these lovely melodies were going to be rendered in the frantic way of a pasta sauce commercial on TV. 

Completely Wrong

Thankfully, it turns out my fears were unfounded. DiDonato’s “Songplay” program was a captivating medley of the beloved baroque and classical “arie antiche,” transported into delicious harmonic la la lands of sheer sonic whimsy. Whereas these melodies in their original setting require a measure of tasteful and elegant restraint, it turns out they are well served by the free-inprovisational style of jazz arrangements, where exaggerated fermatas, multi-octave glissandi, accented ostinatos and generous rubatti merely add to the spontaneity of singing, as if sung by someone unaware that she is being watched. 

Wearing an elegant emerald green dress with sparkles, DiDonato took to centerstage backed by a handsome group of five gentlemen callers, each showcasing their respective musical gifts.

She opened the program with a parody of herself as a beginning voice student, attempting Tommaso Giordani’s “Caro mio ben,” before proceeding in warm, lustrous vocal tone to perform the feathery arrangement by pianist Craig Terry and bassist Chuck Israels. Other selections in the opening set include Caccini’s “Amarilli, mia bella” enhanced by colorful borrowed harmonic cadences taking the melody to unexpected places, and closing with a reading of Parisotti’s “Se tu m’ami,” rendered with great verve.

From grand florid arias to delicate baroque miniatures, the rest of the evening also provided many rewards. Paisiello’s “Nel cor piu non mi sento” started meekly enough as expected, but even before the end of the first phrase, one could tell that Terry’s arrangement couldn’t be constrained harmonically within the innocence of the original setting.

Vivaldi’s grand setting of “Col piacer della mia fede,” from his opera “Arsida, Regina di Ponto” offered a brilliant duel of bravura between Joyce DiDonato and trumpetist Charlie Porter.

Giuseppe Torelli’s “Tu lo sai,” often treated as a throw-away tune, yielded surprising depth and feeling, in the devastation of heartbreak and lost love depicted as a lament that melts into the final word, “crudele.” 

Change of Pace

Providing occasional relief from the intensity of the high-strung baroque pieces were a handful of jazzy pop favorites, like Rodgers and Hart’s “With a Song in My Heart,” George Shearing’s great Ella Fitzgerald standard “Lullaby of Birdland,” and Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” all rendered with the classy sophistication of a high-rent downtown jazz club.

Gene Scheer’s tender, hearfelt song “Lean Away” was the lone contemporary entry of the program. Better known as the librettist of Jake Heggie’s opera “Dead Man Walking,” the song provided a welcome opportunity to hear Scheer’s musical voice as a composer.

Rounding off the evening were the exceptional instrumental solo contributions, particularly in Porter’s own “Prelude,” a magnificent expostulation deftly delivered in the manner of a true trumpet master; as well as Argentinian bandoneonist Lautaro Greco, who showcased his marvelous instrument in the conversational, questioning style of “Griesta” by Enrique Delfine, and also while partnering DiDonato in the delectable encore, “La Vie en rose.” Drummer Jimmy Madison rounded out this impressive top-notch ensemble, delivering a skillful and muscular rhythmic section.

In sum, this was a fantastic program that not only showcased a wide array of enjoyable repertory, but also spotlighted DiDonato’s unique artistry and ability to make all of these individual parts feel like a cohesive whole.


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