Geneva Anderson digs into art

Interview: Joyce DiDonato talks about “Drama Queens,” her new concert of Baroque arias, featuring great and powerful queens—at Weill Hall tonight, Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato performs “Drama Queens” at Weill Hall on November 20, 2012.

Crowned with a Grammy Award for her last album, “Diva, Divo” and just named Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year, Joyce DiDonato enchants audiences everywhere she performs.  This mezzo soprano from Kansas has a special charm for those of us in the Bay Area though.  In 1997, she distinguished herself in San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program with her performance as Rossini’s Cenerentola and gave an unforgettable Schwabacher Debut Recital.  She returned in 2009 with a breathtaking mastery of lesser-known Spanish and Italian songs and then delighted us all last month as Romeo in SFO’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi.  Her relaxed and personable vibe, combined with that amazing voice, which seems to channel the very soul of her composers, makes for a mesmerizing diva who is also very down to earth.  DiDonato will present “Drama Queens,” her electrifying program of 17th and 18th Century arias from queens and female royals throughout history at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall this evening (Tuesday, November 20, 2012).

Performed this past weekend at Carnegie Hall to a sold-out audience, the recital is a selection from her bestselling new CD, Drama Queens.  She is joined by the Italian orchestra, Il Complesso Barocco, led by the dynamic first violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky.  This is their only West Coast appearance in a program that includes songs by composers as famous as Handel and Vivaldi and as little known as Orlandini and Porta.  The female royals represented are Berenice, Orontea, Octavia, Semiramide, Ifgenia, Armida and Cleopatra.  Didonato literally inhabits these characters bringing them to life and interacts with the orchestra and they with her to co-create something that feels spontaneous and magically alive.   I interviewed DiDonato about this exciting program—

How did the idea for “Drama Queens” come about and what’s the particular appeal of this music for you at this stage in your career?   What was your research like and how did you go about finding some of the more obscure songs on the album?

Joyce DiDonato:  I knew I wanted to return to the world of Baroque music, because I find that it gives me the freedom to employ everything that I am as an artist.  It requires great technical command, but that is only at the service of laying out grand emotions – something that I think audiences are dying to experience.  Alan Curtis, the conductor on the album and founder of Il Complesso Barocco, did the majority of the scouring of old music scores in order to unearth some of these long-forgotten gems, and I’m so grateful that he did.

What is it about the Baroque period that particularly appeals to you as a singer?  Were any of the songs in the program that you’re singing originally sung by castrati?

Joyce DiDonato:  Johann Haase’s Cleopatra (in Antonio e Cleopatra ) was written for and premiered by the most famous castrato of all, Farinelli.  It’s fascinating, because the Antonio (Anthony) in that opera was played by the Florentine contralto, Vittoria Tesi (“La Fiorentina” 1700-1775), so it somehow seemed to balance out the gender issue!  One thing I love about this music is the contrast between the pyrotechnic arias, full of dance rhythms and percussive elements, contrasted with the long, languid, limpid melodies that seem to make time mystically stand still.  (Hasse’s “Morte col fiero aspetto” from Antonio e Cleopatra (1725) is performed on the Drama Queens program and CD.)

Did the “Drama Queens” program evolve as a collaboration with Il Complesso Barocco and violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky from the start?  How did these practiced Baroque musicians inspire your performance?

Joyce DiDonato:  It was conceived with maestr Alan Curtis, whom I have worked with for over 10 years.   I’ve been singing with this orchestra for that long, as well, and so we have been inspiring each other on many exciting projects.  It’s wonderful to work with a group of 15 musicians, because everyone must listen, invest, and participate in a very active way, which gives way to a very committed performance for the audience.  (Maestro Alan Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco received the prestigious ECHO Klassik Award 2012 for best recording of the year in opera of the 17th and 18th Centuries, for “Gluck: Ezio” (Virgin Classics).

If given the chance, who’s the composer from the Baroque period you most like to travel back in time to meet and sing for? Would you have any particular questions for him about the music on the program?

Joyce DiDonato:  It would have to be Handel, which is probably the obvious answer, but what I would love to know from him is how he could have such a deep, comprehensive understanding of the female psyche.  I’ve never known another composer who understood the fierce strength, but deep vulnerability of a woman.

Many of us were privileged to hear you sing I Capuleti e i Montecchi  last month at SF Opera.   It is fun getting to step into another gender to sing a pants role?   Does it present any particular challenges?   What’s the funniest thing that happened during that production? 

Joyce DiDonato:  It’s fabulous! I get permission to step far outside the boundaries of my normal life and step inside these extraordinary characters who are allowed to suffer and love and emote in ways often frowned upon in modern society!  It is important that I believe 100% in what I’m doing so that the character can be believable ~ if I am not convinced in myself, it will never be convincing for the audience.

I know this past summer you were in Burgundy and sang at the Festival Musique & Vin au Clos Vougeot and tasted some exquisite wines from Aubert de Villaine’s famed Domaine de Romanée Conti vineyard.  And now you are in the heart of the Wine Country…What do you feel about the relation between great music and great wine?  And do you ever have a glass of wine before singing?  Will you be able to take advantage of your appearance in Sonoma County to try any special wines while you’re here? (or.. did you do that while you were here at SF Opera last month?)

Joyce DiDonato:  Oh – the experience this summer was off the charts!  It was lovely to pair the world of great music with extraordinary wine – somehow representing the best of what is possible. It was lovely to see people from all over the world gather in the middle of Burgandy and share wine, food, music and laughter!  I cannot drink before a performance, but I absolutely look forward to taking advantage of my time in Sonoma to remind myself of what is exceptional about California wine.

I understand you are very interested in photography and I’ve seen some of your wonderful photos online. With so many people looking at you and taking your picture, do you find that photography helps to take the focus off of yourself? What/who do you like to photograph? Also, has pursuing this art form somehow contributed to your understanding of music?

Joyce DiDonato:  Well, it simply lets me exercise a different set of senses, which somehow feels very balancing and nourishing to me. It has made me a better observer of life, which I think then translates into how I am able to interpret complex emotions on the stage. I do love the silence of it – and the magic of trying to capture a single moment in time that will never be repeated in the exact same way – much like a musical phrase. It drives home the idea to live fully in the present moment, which is always a welcome reminder to me.

Details: Joyce DiDonato “Drama Queens” is Tuesday, November 20, 2012, at 8 PM, at Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, at the intersection of Rohnert Park Expressway and Petaluma Hill Road, Cotati, CA.

Tickets are $90 to $35 and can purchased online (click here) OR by phoning the Box Office at (866) 955-6040. Box Office hours: Monday–Thursday 8 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. and Friday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. OR In Person at the Green Music Center (same hours as above).

Parking for this Green Music Center performance is included in ticket price.  Enter via Sonoma State University’s main campus entrance or its Rohnert Park Expressway entrance (closer to GMC). Park on campus in lots L,M,N and O. For more information, visit or phone 1.866.955.6040.

November 20, 2012 Posted by | Classical Music, Green Music Center | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stealthy Soprano Nicole Cabell climbs a sink and balances on a wall in her debut at SF Opera’s “Capulets and Montagues,” through October 19, 2012

Singing on top of a sink means ditching your Christian Lacroix platforms and using those toes to grip. Nicole Cabell is the stealthy Giulietta in Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, “The Capulets and the Montagues,” which opens SF Opera’s fall season. Photo by Cory Weaver.

SF Opera’s fall season opener is Bellini’s 1830 bel canto masterpiece, The Capulets and the Montagues (I Capuleti e i Montecchi)—the doomed love story of Romeo and Juliet, but not Shakespeare’s version.  And in this production, it is Giulietta, the stunning Nicole Cabell, who does all of the work literally.  The poised soprano, in her SF Opera debut, first climbs atop a sink mounted high on a wall and delivers a lush aria and later teeters on a narrow wall and delivers another…all in the name of love.  The object of her affection is opera’s white hot mezzo, Joyce DiDonato, her Romeo.  As this 1830 opera begins, Romeo and Juliet have already met and fallen in love and there isn’t a single uplifting moment for the two young lovers.  Romeo, a Monatgue, is a real rebel and he has killed Giulietta’s brother and is on the verge of war with the Capulets, while his Giulietta (a Capulet) is engaged to her cousin Tebaldo, who is based on the character Tybalt.  Tormented Giulietta, holed up in the Verona palace, refuses Romeo’s numerous longing pleas to run away with him, offering the excuse that she cannot desert her father.  It’s only in death that the lovers are joined.  In fact this isn’t much of a love story at all—it’s more a sad commentary on being caught up in the fervor of war and the vulnerability of first love.  Bellini’s beautiful music, composed when he was just 29, and played with affecting beauty by the SF Opera Orchestra, expresses deep tenderness and pathos in the two lovers’ passionate solos and contains bloodthirsty choral parts, meant to drive home the unstoppable momentum of the war machine itself.

SF Opera opens its fall season with Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, “The Capulets and the Montagues” (“I Capuleti e i Montecchi”), the story of Romeo and Juliet sans Shakespeare. Joyce DiDonato (left) is Romeo and Nicole Cabell is Giulietta. Photo by Cory Weaver.

This Bavarian State Opera and San Francisco Opera co-production, directed by Vincent Boussard, had its world premiere at the Nationaltheatre in Munich in March 2011.  It features a sparse but confounding set design by Vincent Lemaire.  Minimalistic palace walls are illuminated with lovely Lascaux-like primitive drawings of running horses, the beauty of which is illuminated by Guido Levi’s skillful lighting but confounded by two dozen saddles awkwardly hanging down like pendant lamps over the Capulets.  These saddles, meant to remind us that battle is eminent, are much like the huge descending mirrors in Alessandro Cameo’s minimalistic set design for SF Opera’s 2011 Don Giovanni—they get very old very fast. The set also has an elegant shiny black floor which occasionally squeaked.  And then there’s the sink mounted high on one of the walls, a fixture that plays a heightened role as a platform for one of Cabell’s arias and seemed to work beautifully with minimalistic aspects of the set design.  Most confounding, to the point of annoying, was the interruption of the music and flow twice, both Act I and Act II, for changes in scenery.

The stylish costumes by Christian Lacroix, known for his use of vibant shades and textures, infused a palpabale visual energy into the angst-ridden vibe of the opera.  While it isn’t widely known outside the fashion world, Lacroix’s fashion house went into bankuptcy in 2009 and he subsequently lost the rights to design under his own name, so these gorgeous gowns, which look exceptional on the lythe bodied Cabell and supernunneries, are part of an bygone era of decadent couture that carries the name Chrstian Lacroix. (Now Lacroix, designing under the name “Monsieur C. Lacroix”, collaborates with the hihg-end Spanish chain, Desigual, known for using a kaleidoscope of colours.) The humorous Act II opening of the opera includes a scene that many men may find baffling but most women instinctively relate to—supernumeraries in confection-colored elegant Lacroix gowns slowly and somewhat noisily parade up steep metal bleachers in outrageously high Lacroix stilettos.  Just as the young lovers are hostage to doomed love, women are bewitched by stylish but impossibly cruel shoes.

What works magically is the singing and Cabell and DiDonato are very heart and soul of it.  Each is in top form, but the meshing of their voices, its exquisite tenderness, is what defines this production.   Cabell’s SF Opera debut will be long remembered. Her singing grew more sublime as the evening progressed, exemplifying what makes the bel canto repertory work: beautiful sound creatively embellished, driving home the emotion.  Her Act I aria, “Oh quante volte,” in which she longs for Romeo to return to her, was deeply melancholic.  And her acting—soulful, demented—delivered pathos in doses befitting a torn young woman.

From the minute she walked on stage, Joyce DiDonato, a former Merola participant, owned this trousers role.  She delivered an impassioned, idealistic, and highly impulsive young Romeo with an intoxicating sensuality and her expressive mezzo voice seemed capable of winning over every heart but hesitant Giulietta’s.

Here, Joyce DiDonato sings Romeo’s Act 1 aria from The Capulets and the Montagues (Paris, 2008).  Romeo has entered the palace in the guise of a Montague envoy and offers the guarantee of peace through the marriage of Romeo to Guilietta. He will leave distraught, knowing that he is an unwitting, inexorable part of the machinery of war that cannot be stopped.:

A strong supporting cast backed up the two soloists.  Albanian tenor Samir Pirgu seemed to struggle to find his sweet spot in his SF Opera debut as Tebaldo, Guilietta’s fiancé, but his singing improved as the evening progressed.  Chinese baritone and second-year Adler Fellow, Ao Li, made the most of his small role as Lorenzo, the doctor (not friar) of the Capuleti. American bass-baritone, Eric Owens was Capellio, leader of Capuleti and Guilietta’s father who, in an intense stand-off with Romeo, brashly refuses the young man’s offer to marry his daughter, setting the whole tragedy in motion.

In Vincent Lemaire’s sets for Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi,” at SF Opera through October 19, 2012, dozens of saddles hang over the Capulets who are waiting at the palace to avenge the death of their leader Capellio’s son, who was killed by Romeo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Riccardo Frizza, who made his SF Opera debut conducting Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia last season, again led the SF Opera orchestra in an exciting performance that was greatly enhanced by the enchanting solos of Kevin Rivard (French horn), and José González Granero(clarinet).

Details:  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Remaining Performances:  Oct.11 (7:30 p.m.), Oct. 14 (2 p.m.), October 16 (8 p.m.), October 19 (8 p.m.) Tickets: : $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330, or online at Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.

Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently a 15 to 30 minute back-up on Highway 101 South from Sausalito onwards due to congestion around the toll-plaza. Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends. Recommended garages near the opera house are the Performing Arts Garage and Civic Center Garage (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

October 11, 2012 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment