There was no getting away from the fact that Joyce Di Donato’s recital of neglected Baroque arias at the Barbican was one big selling opportunity – for herself, her new CD, her current international tour, and the designer dress she wore. But the sales pitch was delivered with such sleek professionalism that only the sternest of consumers could have resisted buying into Di Donato’s unique brand.
For starters, there was that dress – a flamboyant confection in red silk by Vivienne Westwood, embellished with an extravagant bustle in the first half of the concert, and eighteenth century pannier hoops in the second. Then there was the irresistible combination of Di Donato’s vocal delivery and stage manner. The recital, entitled Drama Queens, was based on her latest album of opera arias sung by royal women in various states of extreme emotion. For this, Di Donato demonstrated considerable flexibility, interpretative intelligence and an apparently effortless coloratura. Her tongue-in-cheek gestures and warm acknowledgement of her fellow instrumental performers also endeared her to an already enthusiastic audience.
What about the music? That ranged from the spectacular to the pedestrian. A rather plain aria by Antonio Cesti made for a modest opening, with Di Donato’s vibrato a touch overplayed. Monteverdi’s lament for Ottavia in L’Incoronazione di Poppea sounded self-piteous instead of sorrowful and bitter, and it is not where Di Donato’s heart or voice truly lie. Much better was the heartache of ‘Sposa, son disprezzata’ from Geminiano Giacomelli’s Merope and the rippling coloratura of Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s ‘Da torbida procella’ from Berenice.
It was after the interval that Di Donato really let rip. A bravura aria by Hasse set the pace, which speeded up again at the conclusion of the programme with a show-stopping romp through ‘Brilla nell’alma’ from Handel’s Alessandro. In between, she displayed extreme delicacy and sensitivity in ‘Piangeró la sorte mia’ from Giulio Cesare, and sang a fine, moving, lament by the unjustly neglected Giovanni Porta. Despite the big red dress, none of the emotions here were over-played. Instead, Di Donato allowed the music to speak for itself, gearing her own musicianship towards that end.
Instrumental support was provided by Il Complesso Barocco, who were never mere accompanists. Under the leadership of virtuoso violinist Dmitri Sinkovsky, they were far too good for that. So good, in fact, that their non-vocal ‘fillers’ (Scarlatti’s sinfonia from Tolomeo ed Alessandro Vivaldi’s ‘Per Pisandel’ violin concerto, and ballet music from Gluck’s Armide) were alone worth the price of the ticket.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk