Classical music is not for the faint of heart. This is especially true of opera, a mind-altering art form characterized by voices that travel great distances without amplification, bigger-than-life emotional displays, contentious plot lines, simulated acts of violence, and very real occupational hazards.
In July 2009, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato slipped and fractured her fibula half way through a performance of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at London’s Royal Opera House. Visibly in pain but undeterred, she finished the scene leaning on a walking stick, persevered through Act II with a crutch, and went on to sing from a wheelchair for the remainder of the run, her leg encased in a pink plaster cast.
DiDonato is a marvelously expressive singer, capable of executing lyric coloratura passages of dazzling intricacy. A stellar interpreter of Handel and Mozart, she also specializes in bel canto arias by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. Her theatrical stage presence can be riveting, especially in the intimate setting of a song recital. An online video shows her standing by a piano, totally immersed in the role of Desdemona during the lengthy introduction to an aria from Rossini’s Otello. When at last she begins to sing, she is on the verge of tears.
It wasn’t all that long ago that male critics were still stubbornly questioning whether a woman could or should take on material written from a male point of view. Franz Schubert’s Winter Journey, like Gustav Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, is a psychological torrent filtered through the emotionally torqued sensibilities of a moody, heartbroken, and variably neurotic man. And since the day it was first sung by Schubert himself, Winterreise has most often been performed by men.
Yet as the songs proceed like errant footsteps in the snow, the listener has a growing sense of being permeated by feelings so universal that gender stipulations seem irrelevant. Schubert speaks with disarming honesty about what it’s like to feel vulnerable, alienated, and increasingly disoriented while placing one foot in front of the other, facing the strange music of a frozen dawn. When Ian Bostridge took us on his Winter Journey at Lydia Mendelssohn Theater last December, the somber, gentle mingling of voice and piano gradually conveyed the sensation that time itself was icing over.
Since Lotte Lehmann recorded Winter Journey nearly eighty years ago, the cycle has been interpreted by Christa Ludwig, Brigitte Fassbaender, and Nathalie Stutzmann. The time is ripe for DiDonato to undergo her own Winter Journey. Exceptional virtuosity, seasoned maturity, and life experience are all in her favor. On December 16, she will appear at Hill Auditorium with pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin for a Sunday matinee performance of Schubert’s Winterreise.