All four of this year’s birthday boys were featured in this concert with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, but the main reason for catching it was the appearance of the ravishing American mezzo, Joyce di Donato.
After making headlines following her stoicism during the first night of the Royal Opera’s recent revival of Il barbiere di Siviglia – she tripped, thought she had sprained her ankle but had in fact broken her leg – and then insisted in continuing the run despite being confined to a wheelchair, it was good to see Joyce di Donato returned to rude health for this Prom in which her singing not only gave unalloyed pleasure, but was the evening’s most distinguished contribution.
Her singing of ‘Ombra mai fu’ encompassed in four short minutes all the attributes that make her one of the most outstanding mezzo-sopranos currently before the public; there is a creaminess and Italianate-like focus to the sound, her technique is faultless and, the sound is even throughout a phenomenal range. Indeed as she negotiated her way through Alcina’s gruelling coloratura in ‘Ah! Mio cor!’, which is written for a soprano in any case, I began to think that this was more her fach, and having been lucky enough to see her first-ever Donna Elvira at the Royal Opera last season, which was nothing short of sensational, am starting to believe that this kind of repertoire is where her future lies.
Similarly in Haydn’s Scena di Berenice it was in the upper lying reaches of the vocal writing where her voice really began to ‘speak’ and opened up effortlessly, soaring above the orchestra and easily filling the vast spaces of the Royal Albert Hall. Whichever way her voice develops there is no denying that she is a thrilling singer – let’s hope we hear plenty more of her in London.
The rest of this Prom was a bit of a mixed-bag due in no small part to Sir Roger Norrington’s bizarre antics on the podium. The evening began with Purcell’s Abdelazer Suite but was hampered by Norrington’s over-conducting of the OAE’s string section, and his weird baboon-like grinning and grimacing at the Prommenaders. Had his appearances on Maestro gone to his head? Or was this all for the benefit of the cameras? Who knows, but his gurning also detracted from a well-disciplined performance of Handel’s Water Music, Suite No. 2 in D major, where the crooked horns and valveless trumpets were outstanding. Great playing despite some very weird conducting!