September 02, 2014

Q&A with Joyce DiDonato: who are the stars of Stella di Napoli?

Joyce talks about the vocal fireworks on her new album, a bel canto adventure into the operatic heartland of Naples.

The new album Stella di Napoli is a sort of vocal pilgrimage for you into Bel Canto ground zero. Why the fascination with Naples? What makes the sound that came from the region so special?

It’s wonderful to dive into this epicentre of Bel Canto – not necessarily just vocally, as there are some incredible innovations for the orchestra as well – a time that was bustling with vocal superstars, legendary composers and an audience that was hungry for more. Having spent a large portion of my career in this field, it’s truly like coming home to the birthplace of it, and immersing myself in this world of melody, heightened emotion and vocal fireworks.

The composers from the region were very close and there seems to have been more friendship than rivalry. Do they have, nonetheless, very distinctive voices and styles as composers?

It’s clear that they are all speaking the same musical language, but yes, there are great distinctions between them. A Bellini melody differs from the pulsing rhythm that Donizetti emphasises, and the lesser-known Giovanni Pacini, who wrote the opera Stella di Napoli in 1845, was out in his own world taking great harmonic and dramatic risks.

Why do you think it is that many of these Neapolitan gems have been forgotten?

I suppose that the three giants of the time (Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini) simply captured the spotlight in such a vivid way that the others were destined to fade a bit into the background. But it’s clear how important they were to the advancement of this repertoire.

What was it like working with maestro Riccardo Minasi on bringing these arias to light and assembling the program of the disc?

Riccardo was a dream. Many conductors tend to dismiss this music as banal or uninteresting, but I think those that are passionate about it, as Riccardo so clearly is, know that it is some of the most challenging music to conduct. It requires that you fill in the blanks in many cases, and if you possess the imagination and creativity to do that, all of a sudden this music takes on an incredible depth. But it requires a real commitment to the challenge, and Riccardo rises epically to the occasion!

You’ve sung Maria Stuarda at the Met and Covent Garden. What goes through your head now when you think of her aria here, Io vi rivedo alvin…?

I know her much better now, and the conviction which she possesses is much more deeply ingrained in me. I think that only serves the fire she feels within her as she begins that prayer, and as she valiantly overcomes the immense fear that is present in every bar of her music.

Tell us a bit about Stella; she’s in a bit of a sticky spot when we meet her on the album’s opening aria (in chains, about to be executed, her beloved having forsaken her). How do you characterise her, vocally and dramatically?

Well, a bit like her “sister” in the album, Saffo, these two leading ladies are a bit of a conundrum, and I suppose I will attribute that to Pacini!  It’s clear to me that he was experimenting with the conventions, the harmonies and even the dramatic structure of these big scenes.  He requires that Stella be able to do everything with her voice, and the music has a lightness about it – and yet what she is singing about (just like Saffo in the end) is quite tragic!  I think there is an irony that is present and we try to play that up in the recordings.

Can you pin down a favourite aria on the disc, or a few of the most magical or challenging moments for you?

Absolutely not! They are all these precious jewels that I have loved bringing to light.

Have you spent much time in Naples? How would you describe your connection to the place?

My connection to Naples is almost exclusively through the music, except for one very sunny afternoon spent eating pizza near a beautiful Marina: after my first 10-day sojourn through Italy, having started up north, I was elated to finally find the place in Italy where they put salt in their bread. I think I ate two loaves! However, after this disc, and with the hopes to explore more of this amazing music, I know that my relationship with Naples is just beginning!

Stella di Napoli is available now.