Those who follow the career of mezzo Joyce DiDonato know that, for all the impressive breadth of her repertoire, she has a particular flair for the bel canto style. Tomorrow Erato will release her latest album, Stella di Napoli, whose title actually has a double meaning. On the one hand Naples is generally recognized as the birthplace of the bel canto operatic genre. However, the album title is also the title of a little-known opera composed by Giovanni Pacini in 1845. Thus, DiDonato’s recorded celebration of the genre begins with an aria from Pacini’s opera, “Ove t’aggiri, o barbaro” (where are you, cruel man). All the tracks on this recording are performed with conductor Riccardo Minasi leading the orchestra and choir of the Opéra National de Lyon.
The other composers on this recording vary in their familiarity to most listeners: Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, Saverio Mercadante, Michele Carafa, and Carlo Valentini. Indeed, the Stella di Napoli track is a world premiere recording, as are the arias from Carafa’s Le nozze di Lammermoor (another bel canto opera about you-know-who) and Valentini’s Il sonnambulo (another variation on a familiar opera title). There are, of course, many jaundiced listeners who view the entire bel canto movement as a massive cookie-cutter industry, designed to promote at least one diva with little regard to the coherence of the narrative or, for that matter, the integrity of the music.
It is thus helpful to approach the bel canto concept in terms of the literal meaning of its name. This is a repertoire that is concerned almost entirely with fashioning beautiful sonorities, most of which come from a female vocalist. Among the bel canto composers, Donizetti stands out as showing at least some interest in instrumental support, even if only for sonorous effect. Thus, while the mad scene from his Lucia di Lammermoor may be all about the coloratura soprano, his use of the glass harmonica has a haunting dramatic effect for those fortunate enough to be able to listen to the aria in this version. It is thus interesting that DiDonato has included an aria from Donizetti’s Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth (Elizabeth at Kenilworth Castle) that features an equally haunting glockenspiel part (played by Morgane Fauchois). Composed in 1829, Elisabetta predates the more familiar 1835 Lucia.
It is also worth nothing that, once again, this is an album that allows DiDonato to have some fun with fashion modeling. This provides a strong suggestion that this is not music to be approached with dead seriousness. Taken on its own terms, there is much to appreciate (even if this particular listener prefers to take that appreciation in small doses).