Berlioz “Les Nuits d’été ” Joyce Didonato, Barbican 17th February

Joyce Didonato and the New York Philharmonic

Hector Berlioz song cycle sits easily in the heart of the Romantic Classical and has mastered all its artistic language. But Berlioz gives us something much greater…the melancholy of loss… the bitter-sweet of reminiscence…the sadness of lost love….re-imagined in summer nights of youth’s magic days….

Set originally for piano and mezzo soprano Berlioz later (1845-7) re-worked the songs for orchestra. That something seems so perfectly ordinary now and was so extraordinary then merely describes the gift of genius: it makes the inevident self-evident with hindsight.

The poems themselves – by Theophile Gautier – deserve a separate study of their own. There are six of them altogether set to music by Berlioz: Villanelle; La Spectre du Rose; Sur les Lagunes; Absence; Au cimetiere, Claire du Lune; and finally L’ile inconnue. Each is a dainty of intense feeling….again full of the darker, strange subject matter, full of mysterious splashes  that eerily evoke night-water –  sounds, colours and ideas so beloved of the Romantics. But again Gautier reaches out beyond the subjects themselves and uses words to convey a much more intense sense of loss and love…which Berlioz then finds the music for…and this is what makes this an extraordinary song cycle.

The four middle songs are slow moving and two are particularly beautiful… Sur Les Lagunes and Absence…the latter beginning heartrendingly: Reviens, reviens, ma bien-aimee…

And Ms Joyce Didonato has come back to London. And our beloved Diva gave us such a moving account of these songs…. words failed…which is why it has taken me so long to put up this review…and more haunting than any night of summer this was indeed a night where you could hear a pin drop in the vast auditorium that’s the Barbican Hall.

Joyce Didonato is well known over here in London both for her extraordinary voice and her extraordinary grace under the pressure of celebrity. Most famously, in the recent past, whilst singing Rosina in the Barber of Seville at the Royal opera House, she broke a leg on the first night. She finished the performance, singing perfectly only to be taken to hospital to have her leg set. Then she went on to sing every other performance for which she was engaged at the ROH –  in a wheelchair….to loud applause…I believe the word is indefatigable.

Joyce Didonato combines vocal artistry with singularity of vocal technical craft….the effortless result is the consequence of hard-work but it isn’t the least hard upon the audience. Her upper register has no sharpness nor her lower any distorting boom. Rather, her voice shimmers like satin-oil in the moon cut with a diamond star-technique. She reminds me of the great Marylyn Horne in her heyday. And like Horne she owns a wonderful dramatic sensibility that makes her live the words she sings. Yet if anything her technique exceeds that of the great Horne and her upper register is even sweeter…and her acting up-stages Horne as well. And neither of these comments is meant to disparage the vast talent that Marilyn Horne enjoyed and we enjoyed with her.

Didonato’s concentration within her performance is extraordinary and the notes float away as if they were her very own thoughts. Then at the end she smiles brightly as if she’d done nothing in particular. And I for one will never forget this performance…I can still feel the shiver as she sang….Reviens, reviens, ma bien-aimee….

For me Joyce Didonato’s is the best live performance I’ve lived to hear….though Eleanor Steber’s recording of the songs in the early 1960s is surely one of their greatest renditions…I think putting Didonato with Steber is the highest compliment I can pay….

On my return home, feeling buoyed up and full of hope, I went on line to draft my review but as I said I couldn’t concentrate so, instead went on Twitter. I tweeted Ms Didonato and to my surprise as sweetly she replied and re-tweeted me.

To be honest the 140 characters available allowed me to say all that needed saying. I’ll however treasure her thank you in reply….

THANK YOU! RT @john_murphycouk “Joyce Didonato sang Berlioz Nuits d’Ete more beautifully than I’ve ever heard. How Great to be alive.”


Below are links to Janet Baker singing the second of the songs – Le spectre de la rose….which if you listen to will only make you long to hear Absence….

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