The title of Joyce DiDonato’s new Erato album is “Stella di Napoli” (Star of Naples). The title is appropriate since no opera star today shines more brightly than this mezzo soprano. The collection brings together arias from the early days of bel canto. Her earlier collection of bel canto arias, “Diva, Divo,” won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Solo and this one is just as praiseworthy.
The CD includes forgotten works as well as those from the three most prominent bel canto composers: Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti. DiDonato has found the perfect collaborator in conductor Riccardo Minasi since, in addition to his dynamic conducting, he shares her interest in musical research. He is responsible for discovering many of these works, some of which have never been recorded before, and wrote the erudite liner notes. One wonders how such beautiful music languished in obscurity.
The album title is the name of an 1845 opera by Giovanni Pacini, from which DiDonato sings “Ove t’aggiri, o barbaro” with orchestra and chorus. The subject is a woman’s love for a worthless man. As usual, DiDonato burrows into the character’s emotions as well as handling the technical demands with aplomb, showing off her lovely trill.
Bellini is well known but the selection here, “Dopo l’oscuro nembo” (in which a woman is suffering because her lover will never return), is from an obscure opera, “Adelson e Salvini.”
Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” is a staple of opera houses, but DiDonato sings an aria from a forgotten opera by Michele Carafa based on the same source. Another opera based on a Sir Walter Scott novel is Donizetti’s “Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth” from which she performs “Par che mi dica ancora… Fuggi l’immagine.” A more familiar Donizetti piece is the moving “Io vi rivedo alfin…Deh! Tu di un’umile preghiera” from “Maria Stuarda,” an opera DiDonato performed to acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera (from which a DVD is available) and more recently at the Royal Opera House in London.
The piece from “La Vestale” is from Mercanante rather than the better known opera by Spontini and Carlo Valentini’s “Il sonnambulo” is forgotten (in contrast to Bellini’s more popular sleepwalker).
DiDonato sings “Tu sola, o mia Giulietta… Deh! tu, bell’anima” from Bellini’s version of Romeo and Juliet, “I Capuleti e I Montecchi.” She performed this opera to rave reviews at the San Francisco Opera. In the aria, Romeo expresses his despair at finding the lifeless body of Juliet.
Rossini’s “Zelmira” is triumphant in the excerpt on the CD; a princess proclaims that she saved her father’s throne. The album ends with a piece from Pacini’s “Saffo” in which the title character loses in love and is so despondent, she leaps off a cliff. On the whole, these bel canto characters do not lead happy lives but they do suffer and expire in style, especially when portrayed by DiDonato.
Minasi leads the orchestra and chorus of the Lyon Opera and the album would be worthwhile just for their playing. Among the many graceful touches are the glockenspiel on the Kenilworth piece and the clarinet on the Lammermoor aria.
New Yorkers will have a number of opportunities to catch DiDonato this season. She will be starring in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago” with Juan Diego Florez between February 16 and March 14, 2015. She is also Carnegie Hall’s Perspectives artist and will be giving concerts, starting on October 26, 2014, when she sings the title role in a performance of Handel’s “Alcina” with The English Concert under Harry Bicket in Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage. She will perform a Venice-inspired recital with pianist David Zobel on November 4th in Stern Auditorium and a Zankel Hall concert on February 5th with the Brentano String Quartet, which will include the New York premiere of “Camille Claudel: Into the Fire” by composer Jake Heggie. Finally, on March 18th in Stern Auditorium, she will sing bel canto arias and ensembles with soprano Nicole Cabell and tenor Lawrence Brownlee and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Maurizio Benini.