James R. Oestreich
If the silver-throated mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato wants to sing glorious music by Purcell and Handel, I’m easy. Any old pretext will do. The pretext on Thursday at Carnegie Hall was “In War and Peace,” a well-traveled, predominantly Baroque program with the early-music band Il Pomo d’Oro, which has already been released on disc by Erato.
Ms. DiDonato has a lot on her mind, which she alluded to in a program note, a form letter stuffed into the booklet and a little talk at evening’s end. War and peace, all this made abundantly clear, are also to be taken metaphorically as emotional states in a journey from discord to harmony, from chaos to serenity. The program was thus divided (“War,” “Peace”), though the two were not always clearly distinguished in works that themselves subtly mingled moods.
Musically, for example, Handel’s sublime aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” (from “Rinaldo”) might seem peace itself to anyone unaware that its singer is being held captive by a sorceress. Happily, matters were somewhat clarified by projected titles and by heavy doses of theatricality — lighting effects, video backdrops, costume changes, even rudimentary dance (Manuel Palazzo) — with Ms. DiDonato listed as executive producer and Ralf Pleger as director.
It could all be a bit much at times, and Ms. DiDonato’s burnished tone, especially in Purcell’s incomparably moving lament “When I am laid in earth” (from “Dido and Aeneas”), and blazing coloratura, especially in Niccolò Jommelli’s spitfire aria “Par che di giubilo” (from “Attilio Regolo”), carried most of the freight dramatically as well as musically. The Jommelli was repeated in part as an encore, and here the projected fireworks seemed just right.
Il Pomo d’Oro was excellent in instrumental interludes as well as the arias, exuberantly conducted from the harpsichord and, once, from a cornetto by Maxim Emelyanychev. A second violinist, Anna Fusek, showed similar versatility, doubling on soprano recorder in the high-flying bird song of Handel’s “Augelletti che cantata” (from “Rinaldo”), and brought the house down.
In announcing the second encore, Ms. DiDonato gave a little speech on the power of music to transform darkness into light. “The sun is going to rise tomorrow,” she promised in league with Richard Strauss, in his song “Morgen.” The concertmaster, Edson Scheid, proved a worthy foil as violin soloist in the Strauss. And it was entertaining to hear these early musickers, who generally shun vibrato, try to beef up their tone to late-Romantic standards.