DiDonato keeps everything in the moment at recital

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, accompanied by David Zobel.
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, accompanied by David Zobel. (The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 8:01 PM

Be they bored, rapt, or somewhere in between, everyone in a concert hall is moving together through the same two hours. The great achievement of a performance, though, is to suspend time so that everyone is existing, however briefly, in the same moment - a piece of distilled awareness in the form of sound.

It happened at the mezzosoprano Joyce DiDonato's recital at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Tuesday night, more than once. Whether she was singing a dramatic monologue, such as Haydn's challenging "Scena di Berenice," which opened the program, or a song by Cecile Chaminade, fleeting and iridescent as a soap bubble, DiDonato would find a phrase and sing so solidly to the heart of the music, luxuriating in each note, that the sound opened and breathed and blossomed. Rather than being propelled forward, everyone hovered in the moment, together, not wanting it to end.

This is an awfully high-falutin' way to describe a singer who isn't high-falutin' at all. DiDonato, 42, has reached her current career heights - she's one of the biggest stars in opera - precisely by being so eminently herself. She's a down-to-earth presence, giving not artifice, but herself, whether in music, in spoken interludes between her sets, or even, offstage, on the blog ("Yankee Diva") she's kept for years.

And part of the magic of her recital on Tuesday is that it wasn't flawless, but human. The huge spaces of the Kennedy Center are anything but ideal for the intimacy of a song recital, offering smaller-scale works for a single unamplified voice, and DiDonato succumbed at times to the temptation to push her voice a bit, particularly in some of the faster songs (the end of the Haydn, or "La Chanson de Zora" in a Rossini set, or Chaminade's "Villanelle").

But the humanity is precisely what made the singing so luminous in the vast majority of the offerings. Rather than a china doll, or an image of perfection, DiDonato is always present as a real person who cares about what she's doing. She backs this up with a gorgeous vocal technique and ease of delivery (indeed, I should qualify the quibble about her pushing by adding that she never tries to take her voice into the wrong repertory).

Her voice is lyrical rather than heavy or dramatic, with a shining freshness that gave a particular radiance to the French songs (the Chaminade set and Reynaldo Hahn's cycle "Veneziana), and a caramel warmth to its depths that glowed in the showstopping aria from Rossini's "Otello," supported by her eager accompanist, David Zobel. (This opera, now nearly forgotten, was a huge hit in its day, and this particular aria heavily influenced Giuseppe Verdi's treatment of the same scene in his own "Otello" 70 years later.)

DiDonato is on tour with this recital, leading up to her mainstage Carnegie Hall debut in March that will include the world premiere of a new song cycle by Jake Heggie. At the Kennedy Center, she replaced that with the Hahn cycle and with three light serenades, including the sugary "La Spagnola" by Vincenzo Di Chiara. For some singers, this would have been too much sugar, but DiDonato pulled it off with the force of her own conviction - and countered any incipient charges of lightness with the aria from Rossini's "La Donna del Lago," stunningly sung, as a generous encore. (She followed it with "Somewhere over the Rainbow" as a tribute to Gerald Perman, who 20 years ago founded Vocal Arts D.C., a producer of the event along with the Washington Performing Arts Society.)

Before her encore, DiDonato made a few comments from the stage that segued into her feelings about the largely peaceful transfer of power in Egypt. In a field that so often seems to exist in a rarefied atmosphere away from the world, she has the directness of a pop musician - not to try to impose any kind of political message on a program, but just to remind everyone of the world of which classical music is a part.

Of course, when you give as lovely a recital as DiDonato did, you can say just about anything you want.

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