“Perhaps my most personal project to date,” is how American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato describes In War and Peace: Harmony through Music. Her ambitions for this collection of arias from Baroque operas are substantial. Surrounded as we are by instability, she hopes it will help us find an answer to a vitally important question: “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?”
Her aim is to “steer conversation and discourse … to help all of us find peace in our lives in a dynamic way … As I have tried to convey in this selection of music, the power to bravely tip the scales towards peace lies firmly within every single one of us.”
DiDonato, an opera singer who certainly does not live in an ivory tower, was motivated to assemble the programme after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015. She had been planning an exploratory album with an emphasis on rare arias, but in the light of the tragic events she rethought her approach, giving it wider and deeper implications.
In War and Peace: Harmony through Music was recorded with Il Pomo d’Oro under its principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev. The programme comprises 15 arias divided into two sections: ‘War’ and ‘Peace’. Both contain music by Purcell and Handel – including, to close ‘War’, Dido’s dignified, but searing lament from Dido and Aeneas and Almirena’s haunting and heartbreaking ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo. An excerpt from Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse is included in ‘Peace’, which concludes with Cleopatra’s spirited and defiantly optimistic ‘Da tempeste il legno infranto’ from Giulio Cesare.
A further aria from Giulio Cesare is the bonus track for the album; it is Sesto’s touching apostrophe to hope, ‘Cara speme’, which Joyce DiDonato sings unforgettably on a floating whisper of breath.
In her search for peace and harmony, the American singer did not entirely desert her musicological quest, and the album also contains no fewer than three world premiere recordings: a ‘War’ aria from Andromaca by the Neapolitan composer Leonardo Leo (1694-1744), and two ‘Peace’ arias, from the operas Attila and Attilio Regolo, by another Neapolitan, Niccolò Jommelli (1714-1774).
When Baroque opera was at its height, the highly stylised art form was famously described by the English writer Dr Samuel Johnson as “an exotic and irrational entertainment which has always been combated, and always has prevailed”. It is nearly three centuries since he made that judgement, but opera has continued to prevail – by impassioning performers and thrilling and moving audiences: nothing rivals it in giving intense, compelling expression to matters of life, love and death. Over recent decades, opera of the Baroque era has gained a new and vigorous life, with frequent revivals of works by such masters as Handel, Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Purcell, and the rediscovery of operas by composers who had fallen into obscurity.
Fuelled by these arias, Joyce DiDonato is fervently committed the cause of engaging the hearts and minds of music-lovers around the world. As she leads the way forward, long may opera – and peace – prevail.