Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano open Wigmore Hall's new season
Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano

It may be a long while ago, but the series of celebrity recitals that used to be hosted by the Royal Opera House is still vivid in the memory. Those were special evenings, intimate and convivial, featuring the great voices of the day.

They came to mind again this week, when Joyce DiDonato gave a rare solo recital on the Royal Opera House stage. Accompanied by Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera’s music director, she turned in a star performance in her own style.

Two things are needed to get a celebrity series up and running again. The first is somebody to act as the driving force in promoting the events and attracting the leading singers (what names they were: Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau, Baker, Caballé, Pavarotti, and many more). The other is to cover the orchestra pit, so that singer and piano are in closer contact with the audience.

DiDonato did not have that advantage, but her voice and personality filled the auditorium. She and Pappano gave a glitzy recital to open the season at Wigmore Hall in 2014, also available on disc, and their programme this time was similarly on the light side, prone to the sentimental, a bit of a rerun for a larger audience.

She started again with Haydn’s solo cantata Arianna a Naxos, sung with beauty of voice and a flair for changes of tone colour, but not the classical dignity of Janet Baker that lifted the work to tragic heights. A Spanish group of songs included Granados’s La maja dolorosa, the colours extending now to earthy and sunburned, darkly brooding and aflame.

Pappano is no second-string in this relationship. The second half started with Ravel’s Shéhérazade, a challenge for the pianist to match a full orchestra, in which Pappano painted an atmospheric, impressionist wash of sound, and DiDonato provided the focus of beauty and sensuality. They really gel, though, when they turn to the American songbook. DiDonato hits the schmaltzy spot and Pappano has a cabaret pianist inside him struggling to get out. In Jerome Kern (what a fabulous song “All the Things You Are” is) and Richard Rodgers they had the audience eating out of their hands.


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