On Wednesday evening, America’s reigning operatic mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato made her long-awaited local debut courtesy of the La Jolla Music Society.
From the minute one stepped inside Baker-Baum Concert Hall, it was plain that her concert would be unique.
What appeared to be mist, without any significant humidity, hung in the air. Against the back wall was a minimalist structure that suggested trees with large birds perched in them. Front and center was a perfectly circular black platform from which flowing gray metallic-colored arcs gracefully swooped up and back down.
Il Pomo d’Oro—a twenty-some-piece orchestra including harpsichord and theorbo — took their places flanking the platform on both sides. With a solo spotlight on concertmistress Zefira Valova, the strings in relative darkness intoned the glacially slow, serene chords that open “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives.
Instead of the trumpet asking the dissonant musical question against this mystical background, we heard that part wordlessly sounded from the back of the hall by DiDonato. With each repetition of this call, she drew closer to the stage down the aisle. On her last reprise she reached the stage, holding a metallic arc like the ones sprouting from the central platform.
The program was the same as the first 13 tracks of her latest album, “Eden,” with the Baroque composer Marco Uccellini’s brief “Sinfonia terza,” Opus 7 interpolated.
“Eden” was conceived and recorded during the pandemic to be a beacon of hope, proposing that a return to a better life — including a renewed, beneficial engagement with nature — is possible.
DiDonato commissioned a song from composer Rachel Portman with lyrics by Gene Sheer, “The First Morning of the World.”
Following “The Unanswered Question,” it suggests in a tonal and direct musical language that an answer might be found from nature. While it does posit “Eden’s” thesis, it pales musically next to the vigor and transformations of the 17th and 18th century works that followed, or to the yearning of Mahler’s “Rückert-Lieder” excerpts and the exquisite harmonies of Copland’s Dickinson setting, “Nature, the gentlest mother.”
The most exotic offering was Giovanni Valentini’s “Sonata enharmonica,” an early Baroque instrumental call and response between the distant keys of G minor and B minor — in 5/4 time to boot!
The main program ended with Handel’s lovely “As with rosy steps the morn” from “Theodora,” which states that Jesus is the answer, followed by Mahler’s religiously ambiguous “I am lost to the world,” with its protagonist removed from the physical realm. The music was gorgeous, but the philosophical answer to the question of nature as humanity’s redemption was muddled.
The dramatic and effective lighting by John Torres and the staging by Marie Lambert-Le Bihan, in which those metallic arcs were gradually pieced together to form two concentric circles, was most impressive, but the more one pondered over “Eden’s” message, the more anesthetic these effects appeared.
However, did it really matter when DiDonato is in her prime, when her softly floated high notes or perfectly executed runs took one’s breath away? To hear and see her was to love her unconditionally.
It was in the encore that happy and direct resolutions were found. The Challenger Middle School Choir, under the direction of Marielena Teng, performed “Seeds of Hope,” written and composed by the 12-year-old children of Bishop Ramsey Choir in England.
DiDonato then sang Handel’s sublime aria, “Ombra mai fu,” the most exquisite ode to vegetation ever penned.
As we left the hall, ushers handed out paper circles the size of CDs emblazoned with DiDonato’s face and embedded with chamomile seeds in the hope that we might make our own personal connections with nature.
Hertzog is a freelance writer.