Stella di Napoli
Orchestre et Chœur de l’Opéra de Lyon
Riccardo Minasi, conductor
Joyce DiDonato’s album takes the title Stella di Napoli from a little-known opera by Giovanni Pacini, performed for the first time at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1845, a choice that immediately reveals the aim of this wonderful recording. Stella di Napoli focuses on 19th century Italian music that received its premiere in the Neapolitan theatre, leading centre for opera that reached its maximum splendour at the time of impresario Domenico Barbaja and composer Gioacchino Rossini, who wrote the most significant part of his production in his “Neapolitan years”, to disadvantage of a myriad of inferior composers and operas. Anyway, while mezzosoprano Joyce DiDonato and conductor Riccardo Minasi were preparing the programme for this album, this world came to light again, to reveal «a world like that of Andy Warhol’s neon-lit New York City in the ’60s, or Gertrude Stein’s Paris of the ’20s: a hotbed of creativity, rife with bold risk-taking, volcanic artistic output which radically altered the existing artistic landscape».
These are DiDonato’s own words, quoted in the booklet notes, and they convey the idea of the cultural ferment of this part of the Italian peninsula, a ferment reflected by the quality of the music found by the two performers of Stella di Napoli, to the point of persuading them to include it into the album.
Not all the arias and scenes of Stella di Napoli are taken from forgotten operas. Two of them are actually rather famous, as the prayer from Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Riedi al soglio from Rossini’s Zelmira, but it is the case to notice that even these two works have been “rediscovered” only in recent years and that, if Maria Stuarda is now a common title to be found in opera seasons (DiDonato herself performed the title role on stage many times), Zelmira is still rather rare.
Their fate was anyway a lucky one in comparison to that of the other eight works. Some of them are rarely performed and usually only in studio, as Bellini’s Dopo l’oscuro nembo from Adelson e Salvini and Deh! tu, bell’alma from I Capuleti e I Montecchi, while others are world premiere recordings, as in the case of Ove t’aggiri, o barbaro from Pacini’s Stella di Napoli, Oh, sorte crudel from Michele Carafa’s Le nozze di Lammermoor and Se il mar sommesso mormora from Carlo Valentini’s Il sonnambulo. Two other rarities, Se fino al cielo ascendere from Mercadante’s La vestale and Par che mi dica ancora from Donizetti’s Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, complete the programme.
“Forgotten music” sometimes means “boring music”, but not in this case. All these works have their intrinsic value and moreover are performed by a great mezzosoprano and a skilled conductor. Joyce DiDonato has always shown her flawless technique and her peculiar temperament, conferring flexibility and charm to a voice that for its own nature does not have a classically “pure” timbre, as if to prove that this is a defect only if the singer makes it so. In her case, this becomes instead a distinguished trait and she is actually able to darken her voice in the dramatic or tragic moments as in Adelson e Salvini and in Maria Stuarda and to brighten it in the lyrical scenes of Le nozze di Lammermoor, not to mention of La vestale, where her voice is just a whisper.
DiDonato’s voice has also the strength to face all the technical demands of the ornate arias of Stella di Napoli, embellishing them with pyrotechnical coloratura, fearless agility and thrills. Next to this, DiDonato has also the other quality necessary to sing this repertoire: warmth. The pieces range from all the possible human feelings, from the joy of Zelmira to the angry desperation of Stella di Napoli to the sorrow of I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and DiDonato finds the right accent, the right expression to make you understand them unequivocally. Note for example the furious “barbaro” she sings in Stella di Napoli, or the “dolce libertà” (“sweet liberty”) evoked by Lucia in Le nozze di Lammermoor, or, even more significantly, the way in which she pronounces the first line of Romeo’s aria Tu sola, o mia Giulietta from I Capuleti e i Montecchi. She begins with a feeble but sepulchral “Tu sola” (“you alone”) and then her voice becomes strong again to express Romeo’s sorrow in “o mia Giulietta” (“my own Juliet”), so that, in one single sentence, DiDonato has conveyed the impression of the gloomy setting and of the human grief that animates the scene.
Conductor Riccardo Minasi, for his part, is able to characterize this music with a warm, luminous, “Mediterranean” sound. The orchestral colours are precious and deeply stresses in particular passages, when prominence is given to a specific instrument (the most obvious case is the harp in Le nozze di Lammermoor).
Joyce DiDonato must be proud of her Stella di Napoli, a heterogeneous, rich and excellently performed album presenting in the best way many unknown works of Italian music tradition.