Joyce DiDonato’s latest international tour is as much a marketing exercise as a love-in for diva-worshippers. It’s about strengthening the DiDonato brand commercially and selling her new album, a collection of neglected baroque arias that show off her even timbre, her impeccable technique and effortless coloratura. The only flaw in the formula is the title – Drama Queens. As this London tour-stop demonstrated, DiDonato is anything but a drama queen. Her recital would have been a lot more involving if she had summoned some of the qualities associated with the species – temperament, histrionics, fallibility, unpredictability.
DiDonato’s qualities lie in the opposite direction. She is the quintessential American professional, with everything under control – not least the emotions. Presentation is an essential part of the package, and DiDonato came with a Vivienne Westwood gown, a 1960s hair sculpture and a pair of clumpy shoes – an outfit with “scarlet harlot” written over it, rather than the “wronged woman” stereotype of the arias she had chosen.
As for the singer’s vocal presentation, what is striking is its sense of containment: rather than over-egging the drama, DiDonato understates it. She lets the music speak for itself, and in doing so she lets her own musicianship shine through – her perfect trills amid the heartache of Geminiano Giacomelli’s “Sposa, son disprezzata” (Merope), her tidy cascades of coloratura in Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s “Da torbida procella” (Bérénice), her extreme delicacy in Handel’s “Piangerò” (Giulio Cesare), her softness of timbre in Reinhard Keiser’s “Lasciami piangere” (Fredegunda). The beauty of her style – in contrast to Cecilia Bartoli, her only rival in this arcane repertoire – is that the vocal decorations never come across as a vehicle of technical artifice or display: they are all integrated into the musical line.
It was left to the musicians of Il Complesso Barocco, led by Dmitry Sinkovsky, to supply the spur-of-moment vitalità lacking in DiDonato’s despatch – not least in Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin and strings “Per Pisendel”, which made the recital’s non-vocal numbers seem more than just fillers. Elsewhere the instrumental accompaniments brought a welcome whiff of theatre to the proceedings, though never enough to turn a steel magnolia into a drama queen.