In today’s opera world, singers — even famous ones — can feel like cogs in a wheel. It’s not an uncommon scenario to have a young director with limited experience pontificating on what an opera means and how it should be acted to singers who have years more experience. But if opera is what you do, it’s hard to find ways to flex your creative muscles. Short of staging a whole opera yourself, one alternative some singers are exploring is creating a glorified recital with a sense of event, spectacle and stagecraft, beyond the standard stand-at-the-piano and sing. In an era when audiences are more eager for new experiences than they are for old music, nothing could be more timely than coming up with a show of your own.
A couple of notable examples have been making the rounds in the past few years. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo’s “Glass Handel” evening involved videos, a dancer, stunning costumes and the artist George Condo creating a canvas in real time during the singing. And Joyce DiDonato’s “In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music,” created in 2016, finally made it to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on Friday and Saturday nights, courtesy of Renée Fleming’s Voices series. It was its own pageant, with dramatic lighting; theater smoke; video snippets; colorful makeup that looked almost like tattoos on the singer’s face and neck; a dancer, Manuel Palazzo, moving lithely around the stage; and the instruments of Il Pomo d’Oro, a historically informed performance ensemble that’s been involved with this project since its inception.
All these projects come accompanied by a CD, and DiDonato’s, issued in 2016, showed the basic thematic outline: arias about conflict and arias about happiness, many of them by Handel and some by Purcell, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. Given that much of the operatic repertory could be grouped under these two headings — love and rage being arguably the prime motivating factors in a majority of traditional works, particularly for women — DiDonato had a lot of leeway. But she has tried to make the whole thing seem as topical as possible, from the Hallmark card bearing “A message to you, from Joyce” inserted in every program, to asking how you personally find peace in the midst of chaos, to a final curtain speech before her last encore, Strauss’s bittersweet “Morgen (Tomorrow).” Still, the concept remained pretty abstract — a conceit around which to group the arias in what was, at bottom, essentially a recital program with fancy makeup.
The problem with putting on your own show (along with the evening’s director, Ralf Pleger) is that keeping up the interest rests entirely on your shoulders. DiDonato is a fabulous singer and brought much beauty to her selections, from the little-known, such as “Prendi quel ferro” from an opera by Leonardo Leo, to the beloved, such as “Dido’s Lament” from Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” or the perennially popular “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s “Rinaldo.” But the fancy production worked like an encrustation on the music; I found you had to push through or even overlook the one to enjoy the other. And DiDonato didn’t sound quite as vivid on Friday as she has in past outings. The orchestra was certainly very fine, with highlights such as a recorder player brilliantly offering the birds’ voices in “Augelletti, che cantate” from “Rinaldo,” and Maxim Emelyanychev, the group’s leader, doubling on harpsichord and cornetto, a wooden wind instrument. And DiDonato was fine as well, but to me it smacked of rote.
The audience, though, seemed deeply appreciative of this thoughtful approach. Certainly, this is a kind of thing that singers can and should do more of. But it’s also a risk, and in this case, I didn’t find that it paid off.