In November 2021, a starry ‘touring company’ performed Handel’s Theodora in Vienna, Milan, Paris, Luxembourg and Essen. An elevated and moving oratorio, first performed in 1750, it tells the story of Christian martyrs in ancient Antioch under Roman occupation. Theodora was Handel’s penultimate major work and he considered it among his best.
Leading the company was Maxim Emelyanychev in his capacity as Chief Conductor of the instrumentalists and choral singers of Il Pomo d’Oro. Soprano Lisette Oropesa took the role of the noble Theodora, while mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato portrayed her friend Irene, a leading light of Antioch’s community of Christians; Didymus, a Roman soldier who loves Theodora, was sung by countertenor Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian, and his friend Septimius by tenor Michael Spyres, while baritone John Chest held sway as the authoritarian Roman governor Valens.
This recording was made at the performance in Essen. It took place in the acoustically outstanding Alfried Krupp Saal, and was described by the Online Merker as “an evening of top-flight singing of a kind that is only rarely experienced.” The reviewer praised Lisette Oropesa – renowned in such operatic roles as Mozart’s Konstanze, Donizetti’s Lucia and Verdi’s Violetta – for her “dark-toned, full and sensual soprano voice” and “exceptionally refined control of her vocal line”. Joyce DiDonato, meanwhile, demonstrated her “consummate command of the art of 18th century vocal music in all its emotional moods and subtleties” with her “variety of vocal means: dynamic nuance … tone colour, with a spectrum from straight-toned brightness to luscious, vibrant radiance … In the aria ‘As with rosy steps the morn’, DiDonato’s soft shadings evoked the dawn as a reflection of eternal light … Great art in the form of controlled, meditative singing engendered by inner thought.” Michael Spyres, with his “secure, uninhibited high notes, gleaming middle register and sure-fire agility” had “everything it takes to give masterly shape to Handel’s music,” and Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian was notable for his “even, elegantly produced voice … sparkling like gold brocade in its lower reaches and shimmering like silk in its unforced upper register”. John Chest made an imposing tyrant with his “firm, robust tone” and the chorus “delighted with its bravura phrasing and absolutely clean intonation.” The players of Il Pomo d’Oro offered both “effervescent presence and dramatic accents”.
Earlier in the tour, the performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris prompted Diapason to say that: “Justifiably, there was a triumphant reception for the interpretation of Maxim Emelyanychev, Il Pomo d’Oro and a stunning line-up of singers.” There was the “astonishing vocal richness of Joyce DiDonato, between vehemence and contained sorrow, breathtaking in the pianissimos,” and the “luminous timbre and delicate top notes of Lisette Oroposa, the ideal representation of the virgin martyr”. Maxim Emelyanychev’s conducting was described as “absolute in its commitment …masterly.” ResMusica judged Michael Spyres’ voice to be “ideal for Handel’s tenor roles … The precision and speed of his coloratura raised the stakes to fine effect,” and praised John Chest for his “rich, strong voice, particularly incisive in its upper reaches.” Crescendo admired the way Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian applied his “substantial vocal resources with touching musical intelligence and dramatic intensity”, and summed up by saying that, by the end of the evening, the audience was “in a state of bliss … as if floating in the air”.
At the BOZAR arts centre in Brussels last night, Joyce DiDonato gave the inaugural concert of her international In War & Peace tour. Far more than an aria recital, the show promises choreography, dynamic on-stage interaction with Baroque ensemble Il pomo d'oro, and costumes by Vivienne Westwood as featured on the cover artwork for the new album In War & Peace.
The programme features Baroque arias by Purcell, Handel, Jommelli and Leonardo Leo, as heard on the album, as well as music by Monteverdi. Upcoming tour dates include In War & Peace concerts at New York's Carnegie Hall, London's Barbican Centre, the Berlin Philharmonie and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris.
"Thrilled to have my dear friends Il Pomo d’Oro and Maxim Emelyanychev with me on what I know will be an unforgettable adventure, and something I have waited for with great anticipation," wrote DiDonato. "I hope you can join us, and reflect on how you find peace in the midst of chaos."
"I can't put out a major artistic statement for a new album and not have it addressing what's happening in the world today," she told the media in Brussels. "My job is a singer, a communicator, but it's impossible for me to stay quiet when I see injustices around us."
Today, 21 September, the United Nationals International Day of Peace, American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato reveals what she desribes as her "most personal project to date": In War and Peace: Harmony through Music - the new album set for release on 4 November.
Her ambitions for this collection of arias from Baroque operas are substantial. Surrounded as we are by instability, she hopes it will help us find an answer to a vitally important question: “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?” (Fans are invited to submit their answer on the dedicated website, www.inwarandpeace.com.)
Her aim is to “steer conversation and discourse … to help all of us find peace in our lives in a dynamic way … As I have tried to convey in this selection of music, the power to bravely tip the scales towards peace lies firmly within every single one of us.”
DiDonato, an opera singer who certainly does not live in an ivory tower, was motivated to assemble the programme after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015. She had been planning an exploratory album with an emphasis on rare arias, but in the light of the tragic events she rethought her approach, giving it wider and deeper implications.
In War and Peace: Harmony through Music was recorded with Il Pomo d’Oro under its principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev. The programme comprises 15 arias divided into two sections: ‘War’ and ‘Peace’. Both contain music by Purcell and Handel – including, to close ‘War’, Dido’s dignified, but searing lament from Dido and Aeneas and Almirena’s haunting and heartbreaking ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo. An excerpt from Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse is included in ‘Peace’, which concludes with Cleopatra’s spirited and defiantly optimistic ‘Da tempeste il legno infranto’ from Giulio Cesare. A further aria from Giulio Cesare is the bonus track for the album (on iTunes/Apple Music and vinyl formats only); it is Sesto’s touching apostrophe to hope, ‘Cara speme’, which Joyce DiDonato sings unforgettably on a floating whisper of breath.
In her search for peace and harmony, the American singer did not entirely desert her musicological quest, and the album also contains no fewer than three world premiere recordings: a ‘War’ aria from Andromaca by the Neapolitan composer Leonardo Leo (1694-1744), and two ‘Peace’ arias, from the operas Attila and Attilio Regolo, by another Neapolitan, Niccolò Jommelli (1714-1774).
When Baroque opera was at its height, the highly stylised art form was famously described by the English writer Dr Samuel Johnson as “an exotic and irrational entertainment which has always been combated, and always has prevailed”. It is nearly three centuries since he made that judgement, but opera has continued to prevail – by impassioning performers and thrilling and moving audiences: nothing rivals it in giving intense, compelling expression to matters of life, love and death. Over recent decades, opera of the Baroque era has gained a new and vigorous life, with frequent revivals of works by such masters as Handel, Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Purcell, and the rediscovery of operas by composers who had fallen into obscurity.
Fuelled by these arias, Joyce DiDonato is fervently committed the cause of engaging the hearts and minds of music-lovers around the world. As she leads the way forward, long may opera – and peace – prevail.
In War & Peace - Harmony Through Music, slated for release on 4 November, is available to pre-order now.
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