Joyce DiDonato and Il Complesso Barocco: Drama Queens

Barbican Hall

London, 27 February 2013 5 stars

Drama QueensJoyce DiDonato is an international phenomenon. It is a status that owes much to an incredibly successful year. DiDonato won a Grammy in 2012; sped on in the early part of 2013 to a series of deeply committed performances of the rare Maria Stuarda at the Met; and recently embarked on a European tour compulsory after an international opera star records an album. The marketing department at Virgin Classics must love using her to sell copies of what is--as audiences have come to expect from the sensitive, witty, and charming DiDonato--a heartfelt and potent recital of cogently selected music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The album is called ďDrama Queens,Ē and showcases a collection of royal characters--Ottavia, Cleopatra, Orontea, Ifegenia, and a few unknown others--in their most trying, poignant, or, rarely, joyful moments. Itís refreshing to hear a recital without too many old warhorses, with a variety of known and unknown composers represented; a credit to DiDonatoís sophisticated taste. With their careful balance of unrestrained passion and an outstanding sophistication of vocal technique, itís performances like DiDonatoís that keep academics guessing and, indeed, allow critics to focus slightly more on meaning rather than the miscellanea of performance.

Why are women murdered, rejected, and humiliated (publically) in opera? Many of these heroines easily fit into an archetype long identified by feminists: the ill-fated woman destroyed by her chauvinistic, misogynist, and patriarchal oppressors. Despite this historical reality (which is perhaps too often overemphasized by our tendency to read modern values into art retrospectively), it is DiDonato who finally frees some of these drama queens from their historical oppression in the repeated act of incredible vocal virtuosity. It is her performance that liberates: the subtle colors, palatable inflections, and masterful coloratura redeem these queens for the twenty-first century and modern feminine power.

DiDonatoís drastic tendency to rescue gendered musical discourse exists, not only in her use of voice, but also in the performance of and adherence to her modern image, her appropriation of the body of diva. For example, her reputation precedes her performance and expectations run high; she wore a stunning red gown that was able to adapt based on the music she sang in each respective half of the concert. She was at one time, in the act of performance, DiDonato and the Drama Queen by virtue of her plastic, strong presence and voice. This, coupled with her consummate artistry, undermines the patriarchical bonds of the past and gives considerable recuperative value to the representation of women in opera.

Itís impossible to wax further on such a broad topic like gender roles, music, and their concomitant cultural associations in a review of this length, but needless to say that there is a large body of literature addressing this topic and yet very few reviews addressing the concert.

It is difficult to criticize a singer so faultless, but one wonders why DiDonato didnít move a bit more? Often she stood, static, with the occasional arm gesture and same repeated head movements. This naturally got old very quickly but is forgiven by remarkable vocal agility and prowess, her trademarks. The audience was hardly sated though; four encores (all from the album) didnít quite seem enough. She was accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco, an ensemble that matches DiDonato in passion and skill. Make no mistake, they were in the background even as they performed without DiDonato. But itís worth mentioning that the placement of the ensemble in a semi-circle behind DiDonato only served to focus the audienceís gaze on the diva more closely. Nevertheless, to leave finally the realm of the philosophical, perhaps too much time was spent tuning, but Dimitri Sinkovsky seemed at ease taking his time; it paid off: he almost stole the show. Their repertoire choices (Iím thinking particularly of the ballet music from Gluckís Armide) were slightly questionable, however.

Her promotional tour, whilst on the one hand a ploy to sell records, should also continue to subvert solidified notions of the feminine and its modern associations, so that, next time, criticism interprets drama queens not as women, but as people.

By Michael Migliore

Photos: Josef Fischnaller/Virgin