An ecological outpouring of music was heard at the Barbican Centre.
American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is nothing if not ambitious. Many singers of her calibre and standing are happy to rest on their laurels, programming recitals containing songs they’re long familiar with – but not her. Throughout her distinguished career both in the opera house and on the concert platform, she’s always pushed boundaries and questioned what an artist’s role is in today’s society. She also makes audiences think – none more so than in her latest project, Eden, which she’s been touring around Europe with conductor Maxim Emelyanychev and the superb period orchestra, il Pomo d’Oro.
Part theatre, part recital, for two nights only the Barbican Hall was transformed into a heavenly garden of musical delights as DiDonato beguiled her audience with a selection of arias, bound together by the themes of nature, birth, life, renewal and death. Beginning in darkness, the first sounds we heard were the shimmering string textures of Ives’ The Unanswered Question. Out of nowhere we heard DiDonato wordlessly voice the solo trumpet part – it was a brilliant way to start the evening, almost primordial in its evocation of creation.
This naturally segued into Rachel Portman’s The First Morning of the World – commissioned especially for this project – its first line ‘There’s a language without question marks’, a fitting and intentional direct link back to the questions Ives asks musically in his seminal work. Portman’s word-painting is vivid, her musical style bewitching, and needless to say DiDonato sang it passionately from start to finish. Bringing an array of colour to Mahler’s perfumed ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (Rückert Lieder), DiDonato revelled in the heady fragrance of the piece.
“…the Barbican Hall was transformed into a heavenly garden of musical delights…”
We then moved back in time, for a couple of real rarities: ‘Con le stelle in ciel che mai’ from Scherzi e canzonette by Marini (1594-1663) and ‘Toglierò le sponde al mare’ from Adamo ed Eva by Mysliveček (1737-1781). Stylistically il Pomo d’Oro came into its own, deftly supported by Emelyanychev’s accompaniment on the harpsichord, while DiDonato relished the Italian text, producing an outpouring of glorious sound and virtuosic coloratura in both arias.
Throughout Eden’s 80 minutes (there was no interval) DiDonato held the audience spellbound with riveting accounts of ‘Nature the Gentlest Mother’ (Copland), ‘Piante ombrose’ from La Calisto (Cavalli) and two Gluck arias from Orfeo ed Euridice and Ezio. While one marvelled at the way she so perfectly embodied such a disparate range of styles, the real emotional pull came with the last two songs in the programme.
Fresh from her success as Irene in The Royal Opera’s Theodora, it’ll come as no surprise to hear that DiDonato delivered an impassioned rendition of Handel’s exquisite ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ where time seemed to stand still. Holding the audience in rapt silence, she laid her soul bare, and you could have heard a pin drop.
To follow that with ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (Rückert Lieder) – one of Mahler’s most poignant songs – was a stroke of genius. And needless to say, DiDonato’s performance was both mesmerising and heartbreaking in equal measure. Her first encore, ‘Schmerzen’ from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, was sung with tenderness, passion and feeling.
One of the key elements of Eden is the outreach work with local schools in each city. In London, DiDonato was joined by the Bishop Ramsey CE School Choir and Music Centre London Choir who performed ‘Seeds of Hope’, which was composed by the Children of the Canterbury Choir, Bishop Ramsey CE School, with Mike Roberts. Workshopped last September, their ecological song about the importance of a greener, more sustainable future chimed perfectly with everything that had gone before. And given there was a packet of seeds on every audience member’s seat, what else could DiDonato have sung for her final encore than ‘Ombra mai fu’ (Serse) – Handel’s pitch-perfect adoration of a tree?
This was an enthralling evening, beautifully performed and thrillingly sung. And given it came at a time when the world really does seem to be unravelling, gave hope that we have the power to fashion a better future.