by Tim Pfaff
Can't wait until fall to see Joyce DiDonato sing Romeo in San Francisco Opera's production of Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues (as the company's calling it, though it's being sung in Italian)? Don't have to. The American mezzo, quite possibly the only singer today about whom there may be universal audience and critical agreement – dat she da man – appears in three recent recordings that show her artistic range.
The one that finds her on her most familiar, bel canto, turf – playing the pants part of Isolier, the count's page (and rival in love for his countess) in Rossini's Le Comte Ory (Virgin Classics) – is one you may have caught as part of the Metropolitan Opera's national-wide HD transmissions. That should only whet your appetite to see it again, since it's hard to imagine a better production (Bartlett Sher) of this goofy but musically rich late Rossini opera.
Mind-boggling as it is to contemplate, DiDonato has Rossini-singing colleagues today as good as she is, and two of them, her frequent partner Juan Diego Florez (Count Ory) and a singer as stylistically versatile as DiDonato, Diana Damrau (Countess Adele), share the stage with her, and their fizzy chemistry drives all three to vocal heights they might not have been able to scale on their own.
It's amazing how rock-solid their bel canto remains through a physically exuberant (but not over-gagged) production. The three-in-a-bed scene late in the second act elicits nimble and genuinely funny physical comedy from all three as they chucka-chucka their way through some music of far more than formulaic intricacy and sheer beauty. It's everyone's win that Rossini larded this late comedy for Paris with generous helpings of music from his earlier Il Viaggio a Reims, one of his most breathlessly scintillating scores. Maurizio Benini conducts with the appropriate verve.
Still, the jewel is Massenet's Cendrillon , in the Laurent Pelly production that originated at Santa Fe Opera (with DiDonato) but here is recorded live a year ago at its first-ever performance at London's Royal Opera Covent Garden (Virgin Classics). (Gutsy SF Opera did it wickedly well in 1982.) So far, DiDonato's ventures outside the Handel-bel canto repertoire have proved both wise and brilliant, and Lucette (Cinderella) takes her into lyric soprano territory she made it clear was hers for the taking with roles as different as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and the title role in Handel's Alcina.
Predictably, she's radiant, but more than that she brings depth (but not baggage) to a part that can be knitted wholly out of spun sugar. It's hard not to think that her own story, from childhood in Prairie Village, Kansas (the simple truth) to becoming an uncontested favorite on the world's top opera stages, informs her feeling for the ill-treated step-daughter, whose long first scene, about being humble as a cricket, reaches right across the proscenium and out through your TV screen to grab you (not at all violently). It's the core humility and genuineness of feeling of her Cendrillon – by all accounts true reflections of this down-to-earth ensemble singer with a funny bone that makes her a natural for comedy – that makes her audience cheer her on.
This time it's Alice Coote who wears the pants as Prince Charming in the royal couple to be, which Coote, singing splendidly, as always pulls off with an eerie level of androgyny and a voice ideally matched to entwine with DiDonato's. Ewa Podles' over-the-top Big Bad Mama and Eglise Gutierrez's Fairy, safely covering the two extremes of the female vocal range, head a fine cast splendidly conducted by Bertrand de Billy.
For the first opera by a living gay composer, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking has had a lot of live runs. Since its wildly successful world premiere in San Francisco in 2000 (modestly erasing the fiasco of Andre Previn's new The Streetcar Named Desire the previous season), recorded by Erato, it's been revived in numerous productions on three continents. If there were a role for her in Heggie's Moby-Dick, opening just after her Romeo, trust that she'd have it, and sing it.
DiDonato first sang DMW's central role of Sister Helen Prejean at New York City Opera in 2002 and now emerges as the single finest element in a second sound-only recording (Virgin Classics) of live performances of a Houston Grand Opera production of 2011. Because she can do so much with a single phrase, we hear her character's own spiritual progress through the agonizing process of being a killer's spiritual advisor. But by the time she sings, "I want the last thing you see in this world to be a face of love. I will be the face of love for you," the transformation is real, and felt.
In 10 years of conducting this opera, Patrick Summers, too, has amplified its power.