Furore: Handel Arias

Joyce DiDonato; Les talens lyriques/Christophe Rousset (Virgin Classics 5190382)

13 October 2008 4 stars

Joyce DiDonatoConsidering her popularity and expertise as an opera singer, it's incredible that this new CD is the first aria disc of American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. It cannot have been easy to choose the repertoire, considering that DiDonato sings everything from Mozart and Rossini to Strauss and Jake Heggie, but in spite of the explanation she gives in the CD booklet there can be no doubt that the choice of Handel was influenced by it being his anniversary year in 2009.

Still, this is no mere tribute disc for its own sake: DiDonato really does bring a wealth of insight and expression to these arias, collected under the title Furore. Obviously, fury is a dominating emotion through these pieces, but some of them show a subtler sort of violence, such as Medea in Act 2, Scene I of Teseo (1713). In her mid-aria recitative, the character says that Cupid has 'devised new darts to hurl against my heart, and will not heal it though the pain entreats him'. It's a wonderful text for Handel, who illustrates the enchantress Medea's lovesickness with gently pulsing strings; DiDonato conjures up her envy of her confidant Fedra, who enjoys peaceful innocence. The precision of the trills, the use of vibrato for expression and the clarity of diction are three facets of this excellent performance. No less excellent is the vengeance aria 'O stringerò nel sen' and the death scene 'Morirò, ma vendicata', which starts with a fabulously eerie empty tone, spelling the character's approaching end.

Sesto's 'L'angue offeso mai riposa' from Giulio Cesare (1724) again shows how precisely DiDonato can dispatch a heavily-ornamented line, maintaining vigour throughout the five-minute-long aria and connecting directly with the image of the angry serpent in the text. The mezzo also works hard during the opening scene of the underrated Admeto (1727). Written for the castrato Senesino, it begins with a lamenting introduction from the orchestra and moves through a dramatic accompagnato to the aria 'Chiudetevi miei lumi', in which the title character hopes to die in peace. I'm a little torn when listening to this track: DiDonato explores every possibility of the text and tries to match a different sound to nearly every line, but to me it seems slightly overdone, especially in the aria. The singer fares much better in Dejanira's 'There in myrtle shades reclined', which is dispatched much more simply and allows us to admire the sheer beauty of the singer's voice; to my ears, 'Hence, Iris hence away' from Semele lies uncomfortably low for DiDonato in places, but the fiery interpretation is highly convincing.

Tirinto's aria from Imeneo (1740) is one of the highlights of the disc, with some astounding breath control and thrilling tone in the higher passages. Yet again, it's amazing how much detail DiDonato can pack into such a fast aria, and the dynamic range is very wide here. Ariodante's 'Scherza infida in grembo al drudo' (1735), one of Handel's most moving creations also brings out the best from the singer, not least because of her ability to create spin in the voice and propel her way through the aria's ten minutes. Equally fine are Alceste's 'Gelosia, spietata Aletto' from Admeto and Melissa's scornful 'Destero dall'empia Dite' from Amadigi (1715). Melissa in particular seems to strike a chord with DiDonato, who clearly relishes the text about rousing the Furies from 'blackest hell'.

The disc closes with Dejanira's other great arias – 'Cease, ruler of the day, to rise' and 'See the dreadful sisters rise'. In the latter, one can almost hear the flames coming out of DiDonato's mouth as she proceeds to go mad after realising she has brought about her husband's death; some of the sounds the mezzo produces are truly scary, and the recording cries out for DiDonato to assume the role onstage.

If at times the singer is inclined to overegg the dramatic, spiteful arias with vocal effects that would be more striking in the theatre than on a recording, the efforts she makes to engage with the texts and create a recital of both contrast and coherence really do pay off.

As accompanied by Les talens lyriques and Christophe Rousset – a sympathetic team, only occasionally marred by one or two plodding speeds – DiDonato is in ravishing form, and the diva's fanbase will surely increase even more after the release of this recording.

By Dominic McHugh