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CD Feature/ Joyce DiDonato: "Furore"; Diana Damrau: "Donna"

img  Tobias

Ah, the Diva wars! What would the world of classical music be without the delightful pinpricks and tauntful teasing between our most cherished and beloved Mezzos. Even though Joyce DiDonato and Diana Damrau are now harmonically united under the prestigious banner of the Virgin Classics imprint, some have already started to competitively compare these two singers whose clearly delineated musical territories would rationally never allow for rivalry: In the left corner, we have 37-year old German Damrau with an almost obsessive penchant for Mozart, whose gradual ascension has turned her into something of a „Netrebko for connoisseurs". American DiDonato, on the other hand, has risen through her uncompromising love for the Baroque repertoire in general and for Handel in particular.

Perhaps the very fact that they could hardly be more different in terms of their tastes makes them such great personalities for a virtual match. Or maybe it's just that their two most recent solo recital discs were released within a breath's length of each other. Critics have showered them with superlatives which beg for a facedown: The Times sanguinely referred to Damrau as a „Killer Soprano" on the occasion of her performing the heroine of Engelbert Humperdinck's „Hänsel und Gretel" in London, while the Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen simply crowned her as "Opera's Biggest Diva of 2008". With press like that, it is pretty hard to remain neutral.

As if that wasn't enough, listening to „Furore" makes objective judgements even harder. DiDonato's first album of solo arias is a tribute to the genius of Handel and his „tapestries of such rich, complicated, often lost characters as Dejanira, Medea or Ariodante" as well as a relentlessly honest showcase leading straight into her heart. It is, if you like, the result of a felicitous creative coincidence: Utmost respect for the work of a composer, whose artistic emanations appear to miraculously mirror her own private sentiments. In the act of intimate immersion, these pieces attain universal meaning.

Even though the music obviously mean a lot to her, DiDonato has taken a wise decision in not just choosing Christophe Rousset's Les Talens Lyrique as a pleasing backing band but as true sonic allies, whose contribution is as seminal to the disc's success as her own. The ensemble greedily returns the favor with a performance which is as eclectically expressive as it is energetic and multifaceted. On „Orride larve... Chiudetevi miei lumi", they lay down a lush and consoling tapestry for Admeto's painful soliloquies, adorning the luminous splendor of „Destero dall'empia Dite" with triumphant Trumpets. Their robotically staccatod impulses, meanwhile, propel the sole aria from Giulio Cesare forward like pre-disco 18th century electro funk. The fact that this cast has decided to extend their co-operation beyond the confinements of the studio and is currently touring the same program across the world speaks books about the benefits of this approach.

As much as she allows her colleagues to shine in their own right, DiDonato is still the only sun in the galaxy of „Furore". Her tone is determined yet never strident, her timbre flamboyant and full of character yet never acerb. Her sonic presence comes across as authoritative yet never egalomaniac. In fact, you could compare her voice to a red wine, whose headstrong flavor has been carefully refined by the addition of delicious complementary grapes without surrendering its distinct and willful taste. What makes the album stand out is how feminine DiDonato still sounds while delivering the musical messages of personalities she essentially refers to as „mad" and how she manages to make them seem congruent despite their idiosyncrasies. Anything but an easy pleaser, „Furore" has turned out a dauntless album, which forces its audience to listen. Joyce DiDonato has dared not to play safe and she's been rewarded.

In comparison to „Donna", her courage might even be considered adventurous. The follow-up to Damrau's tremendously successful „Arie di Bravura" again sees her rely on Jeremie Rhorer and Le Cercle de l'Harmonie, the winning team of its predecessor. Sound-wise, the two albums are therefore hard to keep apart and if anything, „Donna" has turned out even more lush and elegant. The same goes for her choice of repertoire, which in this case has been restricted entirely to the great female roles of operatic Mozart: Arias from „Die Zauberflöte" and „Le Nozze di Figaro" are bundled with excerpts of „Mitridate, re di Ponto" and „La finta semplice" , all presented in small packets of between one and four tracks.

While the stylistic purity of the album will be tiresome to some, the seamless segueing of „Donna" has resulted in a sort of highly entertaining „Meta-Opera" composed of various works and periods of Mozart's oeuvre. And for those who can appreciate a singer at the temporary peak of her talents carving out the subtle nuances of her favorite repertoire, there is plenty to enjoy here: The more one listens to the record, the more its discreet shadings start making an indelible impression. On „Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln", Damrau sounds almost burlesque, while her rendition of „Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio" is unbearably sensual in its hopeless longing.

Admittedly, there are moments when one would wish for just a tad more risk. But then again, „Donna" is very much the sum of deliberate choices. And it demands to be listened to with the Soprano's intentions in mind. A cross-selection of the composer's repertoire, the album succeeds in demonstrating how diverse his female characters really are and how little sense it makes to subsume them all under stereotypical labels. The same goes for Damrau and DiDonato, two singers whose recognisable identities should be considered complementary and whose friendly competition for the title of „Diva of the Year" has ended in an exciting draw on the evidence of these albums.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Diana Damrau
Homepage: Joyce DiDonato
Homepage: EMI Classics

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