Joyce DiDonato Ignites Napoli

Jason Victor Serinus on September 12, 2014
Stella of Napoli

If any CD title deserves an award, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s justly anticipated new Stella di Napoli is surely in the running. For as much as the title may derive, on face value, from the premiere recording of the opening track, “Ove t’aggiri, o barbaro” from Giovanni Pacini’s opera Stella di Napoli (1845), it also hints at several other dimensions of the recording.

The most obvious are the contents of DiDonato’s partnership with Riccardo Minasi and the Orchestre et Choeur de l’Opéra National de Lyon: opera arias from early 19th-century Naples. That alone could explain DiDonato’s quasi-imperious cover shot as the diva “star” of Naples. But when you turn to the back cover, on which a smiling, hardly serious DiDonato looks a bit like a slimmed-down Mae West pointing her finger at that pistol in someone’s pocket, you begin to wonder if DiDonato and Minasi take everything they’re performing at face value.

More hints appear in the mezzo’s own liner note preface, in which she states that she envisions early 19th-century Naples as “a world like that of Andy Warhol’s neon-lit New York City in the ’60s, or Gertrude Stein’s Paris of the ’20s.” Then comes the final give-away: the opening aria from Pacini’s Stella di Napoli. After an orchestral introduction that sounds far too like the Marx Brothers zipping off to the racetrack, DiDonato’s over-the-top swooning accents and hilarious treatment of staccato coloratura leave you wondering whether Pacini’s opera was actually meant to be a comedy, or whether mezzo and conductor find it impossible to take seriously the combination of Salvadore Cammarano’s melodramatic lyrics and Pacini’s downright silly music. (Pacini, who wrote more than 74 operas, was born in Sicily of Tuscan stock and lived from 1796 to 1867.)

Listening to this CD with grains of salt in one’s ears is crucial. For, as much as some of the repertoire, such as Donizetti’s “Io vi rivedo alfin…” from Maria Stuarda and Bellini’s “Tu sola, o mia Giulietta…” from I Capuleti e i Montecchi, is deadly serious as well as extremely beautiful and moving, other pieces are best received as unintentional high camp. These include the premiere recording of Carlo Valentini’s “Lasciami … ad ogni sguardo” from Il sonnambulo, which DiDonato sings as if aware of its absurd nonmelding of melody and lyrics, and even Donizetti’s “Par che me dica ancora” from Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, whose wild, keyboard-played glass harmonica and joyful melody seem distinctly out of synch with so much suffering in the drama itself.

As for DiDonato’s artistry, it is, in most respects, nonpareil. At the absolute top of her game, the mezzo exemplifies the bel canto ideal with a plethora of nuance.

In the end, I can only laud DiDonato and Minasi for their repertoire choices. Who, after all, would want to be without the beautiful harp passages, felicitous clarinet line, and unusual coloratura progressions in the premiere recording of Michele Carafa’s “L’amica ancor non torna…” from Le nozze di Lammermoor? Nor would we ever wish to say adieu to earthly existence without having experienced Pacini’s “Flutto che muggi…” from Saffo, which begins as the title character places a garland on her head, seizes a lyre, and “runs her fingers over the strings and strikes a noble stance while poetic fire flashes from her eyes.” Although no plot synopsis is provided, you can be certain that when, in the final tableau, Saffo walks to the cliff top, Alcandro kneels, Climene faints in Dirce’s arms, and Faone is prevented from hurling himself into the sea, all credibility has fallen long before the curtain itself falls.

As for DiDonato’s artistry, it is, in most respects, nonpareil. At the absolute top of her game, the mezzo exemplifies the bel canto ideal with a plethora of nuance that is both intelligently executed and, most important, deeply felt. If her coloratura is a shade less fleet than the young Cecilia Bartoli’s in Rossini’s fabulous aria “Riedi al soglio,” from Zelmira, the trills and embellishments are even more interesting. (The recording is also more spacious, with a richer midrange.) And the voice itself is wondrous: produced with perfect evenness, and seamless from soaring top to impressive, albeit far from cavernous bottom. As a tour de force display of DiDonato’s technical and interpretive gifts, Stella di Napoli confirms her greatness.

A star, indeed.