Joyce DiDonato. Il Pomo d’Oro, Maxim Emelyanychev. Erato.
A self-described “belligerent optimist,” opera star Joyce DiDonato is pinning a lot of hope on her new album, “In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music.”
Shaken by a world of increasing conflict, DiDonato asks in the album booklet, “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?” She cites responses from a wide variety of people, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a Sing Sing inmate named Joe Wilson. (She also urges a discussion via the social media hashtag #TalkPeace.) But DiDonato also provides some answers herself with this recording of Baroque music, divided between arias depicting hostility and those devoted to serenity.
In the first half, her characters sing of revenge, fear and the frustrating battles fought inside troubled minds. In fine voice, if a little overdressed in reverb, DiDonato channels anguish particularly well, especially in the music of Handel, which dominates the album. In his slow and well-known lament “Lascia ch’io pianga,” she washes just enough color out of her voice to achieve a purity that enhances the composer’s signature formula of gut-wrenching despair set to music of extraordinary beauty.
DiDonato also can rage with the best, hurling words like knives in an aria from Leonardo Leo’s long-forgotten “Andromaca.” Near the end, she depicts a swirl of conflicting emotions — ferocity, dread and a mother’s tender love — on the single word “ancor.”
The album’s second half spotlights peaceful gardens, outbursts of joy and lovers who “never think of war again.” DiDonato unleashes some of the most rousing coloratura singing of her recorded career in two virtuoso arias (never before recorded) by the neglected Neapolitan Niccolo Jommelli. The driving pulse in “Par che di giubilo,” infectiously rendered by her backing ensemble, Il Pomo d’Oro, underscores such lines as “My soul seems delirious with joy,” sung with uncommon speed, precision and a beaming smile in the voice. In “Sprezza il furor del veto,” she’s a “sturdy oak,” unbending to a constant flurry of stratospheric runs and trills. The voice is completely engaged in the emotional and technical content without resorting to aspirating or scooping up to notes.
Can DiDonato’s album change the world? Probably not. But if beautiful singing displays humanity at its best, she, and we, can consider it a complete success.
Lucy Crowe, Elizabeth Watts, La Nuova Musica, David Bates. Harmonia Mundi
Lucy Crowe’s first solo disc in 2011, a selection of Handel arias recorded with Harry Bicket and the English Concert, was such a stunning debut that it’s surprising that the British soprano had not recorded another solo album until now, and it’s an equally sensuous recording. This time, the focus is on François Couperin’s “Trois Leçons de Ténèbres,” the first three of the nine musical readings from the Book of Lamentations for the end of Holy Week.
Couperin composed these glorious pieces for the nuns of the Abbaye Royale de Longchamp, a convent founded with the dowry of the sister of King Louis IX, Isabelle de France, who lived there until her death. This famous monastic house in the Bois de Boulogne, just outside Paris, was destroyed, like so many, during the French Revolution. A racetrack now occupies the site.
Crowe is outstanding in this expressive music, especially as the soloist in the first lesson. Her top range is limpid, free of all strain and perfectly suited to the needs of the music. Breath support is effortless. Take, for instance, the melismatic extension of the final note of the first little section, which encapsulates the appeal of her voice in a mere 40 seconds.
In the opening “Aleph,” the first of the exotic vocalizes that accompany the text’s initial letters in Hebrew, preserved in the Latin translation, long melodic arcs swell delicately toward dissonance and then realign with the harmony in ornamented resolutions. The accompaniment is a pale watercolor wash underneath Crowe, provided by Jonathan Rees on viola da gamba, Alex McCartney on theorbo and David Bates on delicately registered organ.
Elizabeth Watts, the soloist in the second lesson, has a more full-bodied voice that carries some excessive weight toward the top and sometimes overpowers the accompanying forces. Although less pleasing on its own, her voice pushes and pulls in beautiful ways against Crowe’s lighter sound in the third Couperin lesson.
Two of Sébastien de Brossard’s trio sonatas are a pretty lagniappe, with two violins playing the same intertwining roles as the two sopranos in the “Leçons.” They complement La Nuova Musica’s performance of Brossard’s chromatically infused setting of the “Stabat Mater,” although in this piece the solos, by members of the chorus, vary in quality.