Joyce DiDonato; Orchestre et Choeur de l'Opéra de Lyon/ Kazushi Ono (Virgin Classics 6419860)

20 February 2011 4.5 stars

Coloraturas It almost seems as if mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato can sing anything. After dazzling the public with wildly successful discs focusing on Handel ('Furore') and Rossini ('Colbran – The Muse'), she offers this new disc of arias taken from a broad spectrum of composers. Always informing her artistry with keen intelligence, DiDonato hasn't simply recorded a disc of 'greatest hits' for mezzo-soprano. Rather, she and her collaborators have carefully designed a program in which pairs of arias have been assembled in order to illuminate the same (or similar) stories as told by two different composers. As she mentions in the liner notes, DiDonato finds great fun in the fact that the mezzo-soprano "has always been called upon to bend the genders, to convince equally in both pants and skirts… while hopefully retaining an individual and unique sound." Thus, the title of this disc – Diva/Divo – focuses attention on the dichotomy of a mezzo-soprano's career. In Rossini, she sings the role of Cinderella, while Massenet asks her to portray Prince Charming.

To say that DiDonato triumphs here would be an understatement: indeed, it does seem like there is nothing she can't accomplish. The only reservation worth mentioning – may as well get it out of the way now - is that her voice blanches out somewhat through the upper passagio. Long, sustained G's and A's at full volume can sound a bit strenuous and drained of color. This is a minor quibble - one that causes slight concern for the wear and tear on her slender, lyric voice. Certainly, these few less attractive moments take very little away from a program that is otherwise quite spectacular from start to finish. A virtual masterclass in the fine points of vocal technique, DiDonato surmounts every imaginable hurdle with panache and manages to brilliantly communicate the joy and fun of singing.

DiDonato's single most amazing virtue is her striking ability to disappear into each of her characters and faithfully reproduce the style and individual 'flavor' of each composer. Her French language is wonderfully articulated and imbued with just the right nasality and hint of ennui. This makes her an almost perfect fit for Berlioz's uniquely shifting harmonies and gently rugged vocal lines. All that's missing from these two gorgeous arias (from La damnation de Faust and Roméo et Juliette) is the last hint of gravitas. In Mozart, she calls to mind the great Frederica von Stade in Cherubino's irrepressible 'Voi che sapete'. But what truly sets her apart, is her versatility in tackling not only Susanna's 'Deh, vieni, non tardar' with graceful elegance, but also Vitellia's 'Non piu di fiori' with stunning virtuosity and vocal grandeur that perfectly suits the character. Of course, Rossini has been one of her touchstone composers, and the scenes from Il barbiere di Siviglia (a thrilling 'Contro un cor') and La cenerentola (her iconic 'Nacqui all'affanno') are about as close to perfection as one could desire. I am still holding out hope that she will release a second disc of arias composed for the great Isabella Colbran.

Massenet's 'Je suis gris!' (Chérubin) makes for a slightly awkward (and very brief, at 1:39) introduction to the disc, but his 'Coeur sans amour, printemps sans roses' (Cendrillon) later in the program is lovely in its understatement and subtle inflections of the vocal line. The latter is a perfect showcase for DiDonato's uncommonly deft ability to blend emotional commitment with rock-solid vocal technique. The rarest aria on the disc – Massenet's 'Ô frêle corps… Chère Cypris' from Ariane is intensely moving and makes one hope to hear DiDonato in many future recordings of the lyrical French repertoire. Perhaps she can turn her attentions to rare Massenet after exhausting the Rossini catalogue? Finally, there is the Composer's 'Seien wir wieder gut!' from Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. This is a role DiDonato will be singing at the Metropolitan Opera, later this spring, and I must say I wish she would leave it aside for a few more years. It is an incredibly demanding, emotional role in which the voice must ride Strauss' thick orchestrations, and ideally demands a full lyric soprano to do it full justice. Of course, many mezzo-sopranos have tackled the role with success, and I have no doubt that DiDonato will make a great impression (as she does on this disc). Still, with all that she does well, it seems like an unnecessary stretch of her precious vocal resources.

Kazushi Ono is an ideal collaborator: it is absolutely obvious throughout the program that he and DiDonato are working together toward common musical goals. Moreover, like DiDonato, Ono displays a gift for capturing the many different moods and styles of the diverse list of composers. The Orchestre de l'Opera National de Lyon has been recorded in vivid, gripping detail, and the individual soloists make virtuoso contributions to many of the selections. The oboe in Gluck's 'Se mai senti spirarti sul volto', clarinet in Mozart's 'Non piu di fiori', and English horn in Berlioz's 'D'amour l'ardente flamme' all deserve special praise for glorious playing. Once again, DiDonato has recorded a disc that belongs in every opera collection. I can hardly wait to find out what she'll do next!

By David Laviska