Venexia, Venise, Venedig: city of singing gondoliers, loved-up couples and pigeons. That was the picture painted last night at the sold-out recital by Joyce DiDonato and her accompanist David Zobel at the Wigmore Hall. DiDonato's programme was largely a reprisal of a lunchtime recital given previously in the same venue: carefully selected songs on a Venetian theme told tales of a characterful city with many dimensions, and allowed the audience to be ravished by the celebrated mezzo-soprano's sublime voice, technically perfect from the top of its range to the bottom, and from the quietest whisper to the most resonant fortissimo.
Once home to Canaletto, Titian and El Greco, amongst other names, Venice provided inspiration to composers and musicians, too – most famously Antonio Vivaldi, two of whose arias from the opera Ercole su'l Termodonte provided the opening numbers of the recital. DiDonato's tone soon warmed to provide a teaser of the charming voice that would have the audience mesmerised later on. Her attention to detail in singing of whispering waves, suffering and desire, and a soul calling out in rapture attracted the ear to music that would otherwise be eclipsed by the rest of the programme.
A quick break for water, and DiDonato reappeared to introduce Faure's first song cycle, Cinq mélodies 'de Venise'. Whilst – as she pointed out herself – such introductions are often redundant, hers in fact were quite the opposite, her sing-song storytelling voice saving the audience from burying their heads in their programmes, trying to find the relevant information. Fauré had actually stayed in Venice in the summer of 1891 as a guest of the later-to-be Princess de Polignac, and the Cinq mélodies formed his first song cycle, overall an impressionistic musical painting of a couple falling in love on a warm evening, listening out first for the jangles of the mandolin, then the nightingale's song, followed by a stroll amidst fruits, fronds and flowers before a declaration in the final chanson that "C'est l'extase langoureuse" from which the singer is suffering. Zobel's exquisite accompaniment perfectly complemented the controlled dynamics of DiDonato's voice, adding a subtle hint of rubato to the rolling arpeggiaic figures so obviously alluding to the lapping waves of the canals.
Rossini's La Regata Veneziana really upped the ante in terms of delivery. Anzoleta, a rather pushy young woman, prepares (or so she believes) her lover for the Venice regatta's gondolier race, which, thanks to her of course, he eventually wins. It is at this point that DiDonato really flourishes, adopting various poses to depict moments of panic and joy; the audience giggled as she flirted comically to portray Anzoleta's self-centred, pathetic and irritatingly smug character. Anzoleta was a complete joke of a woman; thanks to DiDonato's gift for acting, the audience knew it well.
The interval allowed time for Joyce DiDonato to change out of a hot pink gown and into an elegant, figure-hugging, boldly printed dress, as if to suggest the less glamorous, more realistic portrayals of Venice that were to come. Schubert's Gondelfahrer and Schumann's two Venetian Lieder from Myrthen were relatively quiet, requiring none of the acting and flirting that had previously been on show; the audience was able simply to absorb the music, DiDonato's magical voice at once calming and entrancing. The gondolier theme continued with the first of Michael Head's Three Songs of Venice. Head's was a modern composition using strictly descriptive text that didn't quite fit in with the rest of the recital, but it was a real treat (I think for singer as much as audience) that DiDonato should sing something originally written for "[our] own" Dame Janet Baker.
A triumphant final flourish came in the form of Reynaldo Hahn's Venezia, a set of six songs in the Venetian dialect (of which five were performed here). Once more, DiDonato prefaced the performance, with the tale of the 1901 première of this eccentric set of six songs – how Hahn demanded help to launch a piano onto a gondola in order to sit at the piano and sing the songs himself as two boatmen steered him on the water. The romantic idolising by a man freshly married soon gives way, in the third song, to the realisation that, as he gets older, he faces competition from younger lads, who are warned to stay away from the beautiful Nana's heart of a tiger. The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the fourth song in the set, in which the disillusioned man sings of his relief that he no longer has to pretend everything is perfect, but "CHE pecà!" ("What a shame!"). The audience was in stitches at DiDonato's humorously conveyed, idiomatically Italian sense of insouciance that secretly hides regret.
Rapturous applause after the closing number brought Joyce DiDonato and David Zobel back onto the stage several times, before some much-appreciated encores (thank goodness, another chance to hear her voice!) – the middle of which, a stupendously fast rendition of Rossini's "Nacqui all'affanno" from La Cenerentola, left the audience laughing, yet gawping at her virtuosity and perfect control. Banned from singing America the Brave in honour of Independence Day, she elected to sing a delightfully un-saccharine version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
A couple of phrases sung out of order barely registered in an otherwise superlative performance by one of the most exceptional mezzo-soprano voices of our time. Zobel's contribution should certainly not be underestimated: he was easily the finest accompanist this reviewer has ever encountered. What a treat.
Wigmore Hall36 Wigmore Street
London Greater London United Kingdom W1U 2BP