Concert review: Three encores for drama queen Joyce DiDonato

Chang Tou Liang

Once in a long while, there comes a concert which so captivates its audience that people will be talking about it for a long time to come. This themed recital by American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, partnered by the Italian baroque ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro with leader violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky, held on Monday at Esplanade Concert Hall, in their first tour of Asia, was certainly one of these.

A winner of both Grammy and Gramophone Awards, DiDonato is already well-known among cognoscenti here, and her walk on stage was greeted with a chorus of approval even before she had uttered a single word. In eight arias from baroque operas, she sang the roles of queens and princesses, which she playfully described as, "painful, because of the beauty of suffering".

It was anything but painful for her listeners in a disappointingly half-filled Esplanade Concert Hall (the upper circles were closed and there were gaping lacunae in the stalls). She is riding on the crest of a stellar career, and every breath, gesture and move was evident of that aplomb and confidence. And then she sang. The opening aria, Intorno All'Idol Mio (Hover Around My Beloved) from Antonio Cesti's Orontea, displayed the full gamut of love and tenderness as her queen tended to her blissfully sleeping subject, a commoner.

The pristine quality of her diction, articulation and intonation, combined with the dramatics etched on her face and bodily movements made the understanding of the Italian words almost a luxury. Libretti and translations were provided in the programme booklet, but to read these in dim lighting was the price of missing the greater part of the action, which was to properly savour her every sung word.

In Disprezzata Regina (Despised Queen) from Claudio Monteverdi's L'Incoronation Di Poppea, the despair of a kept woman was to be indelibly characterised. Enchantment in the high notes was more than matched by the bewitching quality of her penetrating low registers which rapidly seared into consciousness.

The pathos of a woman's lot was further probed in Geminiano Giacomelli's Merope, which movingly centred on the words Sposa Son Disprezzata (As A Wife I Am Despised), which came like a mantra.

That favourite Egyptian queen, the ill-fated Cleopatra, was represented by arias from Johann Hasse's Antonio E Cleopatra and Handel's Giulio Cesare In Egitto. The former displayed defiance in the face of death with the word Morte spat out with great vehemance, while the latter, Piangero la sorte mia (I Shall Mourn My Fate) vowed vengeance against her tormentor even after death.

In between arias, the period orchestra performed purely instrumental works by Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Handel and Gluck with Sinkovsky's violin solos an inspiration, and the addition of woodwinds a whiff of fine spice. In the shorter of these, DiDonato sat onstage, smiling at her partners and the audience, often moving with the music's beat.

If there was any aria which perfectly showcased the magic of words wed to music, that would be Giovanni Porta's Madre Diletta, Abbraciami (Dearest Mother, Embrace Me) from Ifigenia In Aulide. A long held note sung pianissimo and suspended in the air like a feather was a showcase of perfect technique and control, in a song of parting in lilting siciliano rhythm.

All the stops were pulled for the final numbers of both halves. Giuseppe Orlandini's Da Torbida Procella (I Am Tossed Like A Ship) from Berenice was stormily brilliant, and collective jaws dropped for the repeated notes, trills and cascading runs of Handel's Brilla nell'alma (My Soul Is Trembling) from Alessandro.

The ensuing standing ovation and tumultous response was totally spontaneous, leading DiDonato to remark that in 28 concerts of Drama Queens, this audience had given her "the best welcome in the world".

To prove it, she and the band generously performed three encores, the most sublime being Reinhard Keiser's Lasciami Piangere (Let Me Weep) from Fredegunda, a veritable tear-jerker if any. To have heard DiDonato sing is to have had a close encounter with true beauty.