2 March 2016 at 2.00pm | 12 Comments
When you reach the level of box office pulling-power of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, you’d think you could pretty much call the shots: demand certain operas be staged just for you, veto your co-stars, insist that your dressing room be swivelled 75 degrees eastwards to suit your chakra, that sort of thing. Not DiDonato. When she talks about coming to make her staged role debut as the heroine of Massenet’s Werther at The Royal Opera – a prospect which already has her hordes of fans toasting their good fortune – it’s clear she feels she is the lucky one.
‘Charlotte is a role I always knew I had to sing, but somehow the chance never arose. Then they suggested my doing it at The Royal Opera, and I said: “Yes!” [Imagine an air-punch at this point and you’ll get the joyous champagne-pop of her exclamation]. Really, if Tony Pappano calls you, you drop everything and run. It was a no-brainer.’
The Kansas-born singer has long been a favourite at The Royal Opera and has gained reams of superlative reviews in new productions of La donna del lago, Maria Stuarda, Cendrillon and Il barbiere di Siviglia (in which, during a revival, she broke her leg but famously, and miraculously, carried on singing).
She’s as beloved for her friendly and open personality – she often responds personally to tweets and emails from many fans – as for the caressing beauty of her voice and compelling stage skills. As a further testament to her popularity, she appeared as a soloist at the Last Night of the Proms in 2013 – an accolade only granted to the very cream of her profession.
‘Like every other lyric mezzo at college, I learnt her aria “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes” as an audition aria. Then later I added the letter scene too – “Werther! Qui m’aurait dit... Ces lettres!” – so I spent some time with her early on in my career. I was always grabbed by the soulfulness and transparency of her music. Looking at her character, too, I can say I understand her. She has duties and struggles to keep her promises, but her heart is pulling her strongly in another direction. It’s such a vulnerable and heart-breaking situation to be in. I had to sing her – had to.’
DiDonato also felt that Covent Garden was the best place to take this new step. ‘I couldn’t imagine a more perfect house for me to make this debut. There’s an intimacy about the Royal Opera House that is unparalleled among other houses and this is a work that really benefits from that kind of closeness.’
In the opera, Charlotte has made a promise to her dying mother to marry their solid and pleasant neighbour Albert, but finds herself overwhelmingly attracted to the soulful young poet Werther. Massenet depicts her torment in music of delicacy and restraint as well as ravishing beauty. ‘Yes, it’s certainly not a heart-on-sleeve role: if Puccini was telling the story, we’d have a very different result. I actually find her restraint quite beautiful. It makes her situation all the more moving, all the more poignant.’
Working with Pappano is clearly another attraction. Why does she feel the need to ‘drop everything and run’ when he calls? ‘I’ll tell you. With Tony, there is no other agenda or purpose than the music. No ego getting in the way, no posturing, just supreme involvement with the score. And if you can meet him on that level of preparation and of engagement with the note, the phrase, the aria, the opera as a whole, then the sky’s the limit. He’s there to help you and push you to be your best. If you’ve really done the work, you can fly higher with him than you can with anybody else. He’s there to let you soar.’ Along with the seriousness of purpose, he also seems to keep a lightness of touch and a sense of humour, I suggest. ‘Yes, he can be childlike in the best sense. I’ve never seen him come to a score “knowing how it goes”: he’s constantly searching and discovering. Obviously he has a strong musical vision – he’s the conductor and he needs to lead the troops – but he’s always open to new ideas.’
Has she worked with her Werther, Vittorio Grigolo, before? ‘No, it’ll be a first. We’ve met backstage at concerts and passed each other in the hallways of various theatres, but I’ve never been on stage with him. I know he has this kind of unbridled quality that will serve the role incredibly well. It’s a very exciting prospect.’
Things seem to be going wonderfully well: is there still much on the wish list, I wonder? ‘I haven’t got time for a wish list. I’ll be recording a new album before Werther. Then I’ve got two new roles – I’m doing Nicolai’s Il templario in Salzburg and I’ve got a new Semiramide coming up too… It’s a panic. My head is so full, if I wished for anything else I’d just feel greedy.’
The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from the Maestro Circle.
Werther will be live in cinemas on 27 June 2016. Find your nearest cinema and sign up to our mailing list.
This article originally appeared in the ROH Magazine, received quarterly by the Friends of Covent Garden.