Joyce DiDonato had done her homework. On Saturday night at Spivey Hall, just before launching into her second encore, “Over the Rainbow,” she excitedly praised the late Barbara Stewart for her $9 million bequest to the Atlanta Opera, announced last week.
Looking heavenward and giving two thumbs-up, DiDonato spoke of the difference an individual can make to the arts and dedicated her performance of Harold Arlen’s classic to Stewart’s memory. It was a personal touch and a kind gesture — some of Stewart’s friends were in the audience — and showed how mezzo-soprano DiDonato has climbed to the top of her profession: she is always scrupulously well prepared.
Then there’s the voice. Her mezzo has blossomed since her Spivey debut in 2007, as has her career. A deft actress and natural comedienne — the elegant blonde who can play smart or play daffy — she is now the go-to bel canto heroine in Rossini operas from London to New York. On this recital tour, which will culminate in her Carnegie Hall mainstage debut March 6, she and pianist David Zobel have programmed mostly art songs. But by her nature and the music’s style, much of it came off as operatic: extroverted, impassioned, painted on a large canvas for a grand occasion.
She opened with the “Scena di Bernice” by Franz Joseph Haydn, who is known to us as the father of the symphony and the string quartet but whose vast operatic output remains infrequently performed. We often think of his music as polite and witty and more chaste than steamy. This Italian-language concert scene dispelled those impressions. In a shoulderless black gown, looking as if she’d stepped out of a John Singer Sargent painting, DiDonato tore into the first lines like a woman clutching for the shards of her sanity. At the nadir — “what fatal thoughts overshadow my mind?” — the mezzo dropped to low, plush tones, acting the part with her voice. A few moments later, with the mirage of happiness in view, she sang so tenderly, with such lovely spirit, that it was impossible not to be smitten.
More than most recitalists, DiDonato puts on a show. Although she lives in Kansas City and spends much of the year abroad, she bantered with the audience as if we were permanently on her radar. She mentioned Atlanta’s recent snowstorm and her love of Spivey Hall’s acoustics and offered jokes and personal tidbits about each set she performed. It came off as a mix of calculated flattery and coquettish charm. Clearly, she was working hard to please.
She was ravishing in a group of Rossini songs, singing with gorgeous melancholy “Le Dodo des enfants,” a mother’s lullaby to her dying baby, begging God to spare her son as he sleeps in the cradle. Her timbre isn’t especially rich — rather than cream in her voice I kept thinking of 2 percent milk — but in breath control, flexibility and its ability to pierce the ear, DiDonato’s instrument seemingly can do anything.
Yet as the recital unfolded, I found myself increasingly aware of her self-conscious delivery, when what I wanted to hear was a gifted singer losing herself in the music. As much as I admire her singing, it ultimately left me a little cold. Clearly, it’s a personal reaction and a minority opinion: the audience seemed spellbound for much of the evening.
Pianist Zobel, a Frenchman with a lovely touch, was at his best in Reynaldo Hahn’s “Venezia,” a cycle of five songs in the Venetian dialect. In “La barcheta” (“The Little Boat”), the mezzo sang in a whisper and Zobel added the lapping waves of the water and the gondola swaying with the current. Elsewhere, more personality at the piano would have elevated the partnership, but he was never less than supportive and sensitive.
For DiDonato, what’s good for the opera house might not be good for the recital hall. In 2007, as I recall, her diction was quite clear. Since then she has obviously worked hard on opening up the voice, which is necessary if you’re going to sing regularly at the Met. On Saturday her sound was twice as large as before, but with a trade-off: I didn’t hear any consonants. For instance, in Cécile Chaminade’s song “L’été,” in the repeated line “Ah! Chantez, aimez!,” she uttered no “t” and we heard “cha-nez, cha-nez.” This lack of a crisp edge became almost a mannerism. It’s a small point, perhaps, but in a 400-seat song recital, the details matter. The articulation and meaning of each syllable are essential. Given DiDonato’s work ethic in everything else, this loss of precise diction must be beyond her control, at least for now.
For her first encore, the finale from Rossini’s opera “La donna del lago,” DiDonato let loose with everything she had, and the coloratura explosions and opulent lyricism were undeniably spectacular. Opera needs stars who connect with audiences, radiate glamour and deliver the elements of great singing. Right now, DiDonato is opera’s “It” girl.