Baroque opera is a primeval emotional landscape populated by terrifying creatures: venomous queens, apoplectic gods, obsessive enemies, suicidal lovers. It is not where you would expect to find a cheery, Kansas-bred mezzo-soprano like Joyce DiDonato. Yet there she is, marching through this territory of extremes, handling its volatile wildlife with aplomb, making murderous emotions safe for human contact.
Have you ever felt the kind of sensual anger that sometimes invades your limbs and fills you with the curdled milk of human self-righteousness? That’s the kind of joyous rage that DiDonato funnels into the aria “Crude furie” (from Handel’s Serse), which summons “ruthless furies from the barbarous abyss.” The album of Handel arias is called Furore, and in it she delights in the physical pleasure of indignation, using it to power not just the high scorcher of a note on “seno” (“breast”), but a whole range of quivering subtleties.
DiDonato has said that the world needs opera — and opera needs Handel — precisely because of those outsized ladies who strut and screech and dominate and implore, multiplying ordinary human emotions to Imax scale and dispensing with petty fretting and miniature woes. These are characters who suffer exquisitely. Real pain is not beautiful or fun to witness, but opera can transfigure it into a spectacularly entertaining conflagration. For that to happen, the singer has to perform two contradictory tricks: abandon herself utterly to the cascade of dangerous emotions, and maintain total control. DiDonato is one of very few singers who can keep those opposites in unwavering equilibrium.
Unthinking musicians often make baroque arias sound lugubrious and repetitive, because on paper they are. But 18th-century composers trusted interpreters to understand that on the stage as in real life, saying something again means saying it more intensely. If the page reads “Are you? Are you? Are you?” the singer must make it: “Are you? Are you? ARE YOU?” — and not just by getting louder. For a sense of how a great singer regulates the flow of energy, listen to the opening of “Addio, Roma,” from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea: a quick, pale dab of voice brushed across an “Ah.” As DiDonato’s timbre comes into focus, so does the character’s crushing despair. It takes no more than a syllable to open a fragile soul.
DiDonato returns to that opera in her most recent — and most spectacular — recording, Drama Queens. She begins the empress Octavia’s aria “Disprezzata regina” (“Scorned Sovereign”) with an intimate moan and gradually ramps up the indignation into a full-throated feminist cry: “Se la natura e ‘l ciel libere ci produce/ Il matrimonio ci incatena serve” (“If nature and the heavens make us women free/ Marriage chains us in slavery.”
If DiDonato confined herself to the baroque era, or if she were merely a connoisseur of misery, that would have been enough for a fine career. But she strides into other centuries, and other styles, with enormous charm, and that makes her a star. In her collection of Rossini arias, she floats from silken scales to gossamer trills, rising to each high note on a helium cloud, before shivering back down. She’s also professional without being pretentious. You can hear her sense of humor and natural lack of fakery in the “Villanelle” that opens Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. As that work’s summer nights more languorous and more heavily scented in “Le spectre de la rose,” DiDonato unfurls yet another aspect of her musicality, a wistful tenderness carried on the warm breeze of her voice.
Charm and melancholy merge in her recital album Diva, Divo, in which she hops back and forth between male and female roles. In “Nacqui all’affanno,” the final aria of Rossini’s Cenerentola, the ever-ebullient Cinderella recalls her life of drudgery and chortles over her good fortune at having found her prince. After some draping some filigree around the stage, she stands back for a moment and lets the orchestra gallop for a while before lighting the fireworks of “Non più mesta.” When she arrives at that moment, bleakness is banished and joy takes over for as long as Joyce DiDonato keeps flinging luminous notes into the air.