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Classical 101

Joyce DiDonato Takes A Jazzy Approach To Baroque Arias On 'Songplay'

Simon Pauly
Joyce DiDonato

Ask most any singer today what they were first taught to sing, and they'll produce a beat-up copy of a yellow-covered volume from G. Schirmer called 24 Arie Antiche

These are Italian songs from the 17th and 18th centuries, many of them arias from obscure operas. They are considered good for students because they do not require an extended vocal range.

They do require, and they are used to teach, the ability to sing a clean line, to string one note after the other in a seamless way.

"Like pearls" was the old adage.

Joyce DiDonato’s new recording features some of these Arie Antiche that she probably learned to sing in the ninth grade. The difference between DiDonato and the rest of us is that she has a sumptuous, wonderful mezzo-soprano voice, and she is an artist without peer.

Her recitals range from Caccini to Mozart and Jerome Kern. DiDonato is magnificent in operas by Handel, Vivaldi, Rossini and Berlioz. She sings everything well.

The arrival of her latest recording, Songplay, is cause for celebration. Songplay features plenty of arie by Caccini, Torelli and Vivaldi, plus music by Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart and Gene Scheer.

Find Songplay on Amazon and ArkivMusic.

But what’s this? Instead of a discreet piano accompaniment or a baroque-friendly trio with continuo, DiDonato sings the baroque chestnuts with, well ... here:

Riffing jazz tracks are great. Improvisatory piano is thrilling when done well. I listen to the gorgeous singing on this disc, and I try hard to hear music rooted in the 17th century.

It’s like seeing a new production of Carmen with a male soprano in the title role. (That happened).

You’re supposed to be impressed and admire the opera’s deconstruction. I tend to watch and wonder, Who asked you?

But you know what? DiDonato is an artist of such integrity; everything she sings is worth hearing. 

Songplay is no exception. If the jazz combo doesn’t quite match the baroque patina to my elderly ears, it is nonetheless played and sung beautifully.

The truth is we don’t know how this music was performed 300 years ago. Improvisation is at the root of a lot of music going back centuries. Why not today?

Purists like me (I’m trying to be less so!) shouldn’t panic over "Caro mio ben" and "Nel cor piu non mi sento." These favorites are discreetly tweaked.

The early 20th-century spoof "Se tu m'ami," "If You Love Me," (Joyce, yes!) gets the full trumpet-bandoneon-piano-bass-drums-DiDonato treatment. She goes to town.

"Tu lo sai," an exquisite mini-aria by Torelli, sounds a little Vegas-lounge to me.

Your voice teacher might have a stroke over this recording. I might be in the next wheelchair. But I’m going to keep listening!

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.
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