In War and Peace
Writing in 1916, Yeats spoke of ‘Art whose end is peace’. Now, 100 turbulent years later, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato returns to the question of how to find consolation and quiet in an increasingly disordered world. She too finds her answer in art – ‘a valiant path to peace’, as she writes in her introduction to an album that is as much a personal manifesto as a recital.
Returning to the repertoire where it all began, ‘In War & Peace’ finds DiDonato back on Baroque ground for the first time in a while, and it’s a joyful musical homecoming. The risks are bigger, the dramatic stakes higher than in ‘Drama Queens’ (1/13) – it’s as if she and the musicians of Il Pomo d’Oro are playing an elaborate game of chicken, each daring the other to spin a quieter, more fragile pianissimo, or to ornament a da capo with more ferocious brilliance.
Arranging her programme into two halves – ‘War’ and ‘Peace’ – DiDonato makes it clear that this is no straightforward binary. Fleeting moments of stillness and beauty are found even in war (‘They tell us that you mighty powers’, ‘When I am laid in earth’), while peace can be extrovert and full of joy (‘Da tempeste’) or merely an illusion, created only to be threatened by kidnap or rape (Susanna’s ‘Crystal streams in murmurs flowing’, exquisitely shaped, or ‘Augelletti che cantate’).
Roaming freely between alto and soprano roles, DiDonato once again demonstrates the flexibility of a voice capable of finding both the innocent simplicity of an Almirena and the mature emotions of Dido or Monteverdi’s Penelope – ‘Illustratevi o cieli’, the queen’s long-delayed release into aria, radiates hard-won contentment. Best, however, are the more demonstrative arias: Cleopatra’s irrepressible ‘Da tempeste’, Maxim Emelyanychev’s band strumming their accompaniment like a giant guitar; Leo’s explosive ‘Prendi quel ferro’, the pick of the three fine arias by Leo and Jommelli receiving their premiere recordings here.
Drama, as ever with DiDonato, is everything. Ornamentation serves narrative first, ego second, reduced to almost nothing in ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ for fear of overbalancing the sincerity of this plea for freedom, but turned up high in Jommelli’s ‘Par che di giubilo’. An occasionally too-frenetic vibrato is the only blot on an otherwise excellent recording.