By Paul Horsley
Ernest Chausson’s Poem of Love and the Sea for mezzo-soprano is a dense, elusive mini-drama told through vivid images of youth, lilacs, birds, sunlight and crashing waves. It is set to a diaphanous orchestral score that is so gorgeous that I have sometimes wondered why it’s not performed more often. The Poem was the centerpiece of the Kansas City Symphony’s season-opening concert Friday at an overly warm Lyric Theatre, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the performance by Prairie Village native Joyce DiDonato was another significant milestone in a career that has seen a whole string of milestones.
One of the belles of the opera world, mezzo-soprano DiDonato has also made a strong stamp on the recital and concert stage, in music ranging from Bach to Berlioz, contemporary American composers to French and Spanish repertoire. This was her Kansas City Symphony debut, and it was also her first outing with Chausson’s daunting mezzo testing-ground.
While others might approach this piece as watery and impressionistic, DiDonato made it into something harrowingly tragic. I believe she is destined to become one of its most distinguished interpreters — joining a long line of great mezzos who have taken it into their rep. (In time she will memorize it, so that she doesn’t have to hold the score in front of her as she did Friday: This piece is so operatic in its conceit that you need both hands!) Her French is exquisite, though house lights in the theater would have helped those who wished to follow the printed translation. The Symphony under Michael Stern’s direction produced a delicious, butter-rich orchestral backdrop throughout, balanced and transparent enough that it rarely covered DiDonato’s beautifully projected tone.
On full display Friday was the mezzo’s plush, diamond-radiant voice, which could assume an Isolde-like dramatic quality but then turn bright, even childlike for phrases like “a beautiful child was on the shore.” Her lower register turned smoky for “How sad and savage the sound that announces the hour of farewell!” and blanched-out and vibrato-less for the word “oblivion.” In the crushingly sad final verses her whole countenance was suffused with heartbreak.
What, no encore? After the Chausson, it seemed something more upbeat would have been in order. We had to wait until after the intermission for the surprise: Having changed from the dark "sea-foam"-colored gown (get it?) she wore for the Poem of Love and the Sea into a flouncy crimson number with matching shoes and hair-bow, DiDonato started the second half with Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville. This is not just a signature role for her: She sang it in the Metropolitan Opera’s first season of live movie-theater broadcasts, and many in the opera world consider her pretty much the Rosina today. The aria was the perfect foil for the Chausson, showing off her sparkling technique and engaging comedic abilities.
The rest of the program tried to stick with the concert’s themes of love, death, the sea, dancing, the romance of Spain, the heartache of France — well to be honest, the themes were all over the map. David Diamond’s music for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was deadly dull, thanks partly to the composer’s tendency toward prolix themes that feel like the musical equivalent of run-on sentences. At its best, his music contains the sweetness of Copland’s Americana vein but adds a mildly acerbic twist.
The Symphony sounded quite good, enriched with nine new players including principal viola, principal clarinet, associate principal clarinet, principal bass and bass trombone. There was flash in Ravel’s “Alborada del gracioso” and fine solos in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. Plodding tempos bogged down the latter’s zest, but new principal clarinetist Raymond Santos tore through its splashy solos like a man with a purpose.
The concert is repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, September 27 at the Lyric, 11th and Central, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, September 28 at the Carlsen Center, 12345 College Blvd. For tickets call 816-471-0400 or go to kcsymphony.org.
To reach Paul Horsley, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.