Review: Joyce DiDonat’s ‘Eden’ Comes to Carnegie Hall

It’s hard to imagine what New Yorkers are supposed to do with the seeds of an eastern red cedar tree, given how narrow our window sills are, but they were slipped into the program books of Joyce DiDonato’s concert at Carnegie Hall anyway.

That performance, on Saturday night, was a stop on a global tour to accompany her new album, “Eden,” which seeks to restore our connection with, in her words, “the awe-inducing majesty” of the natural world.

“I’m a problem solver, a dreamer, and — yes — I am a belligerent optimist,” DiDonato, a star mezzo-soprano, writes in the album’s liner notes (which were reprinted in the program), implicitly acknowledging the project’s potential naïveté.

DiDonato isnt the only singer preoccupied with climate change. In October, the soprano Renée Fleming released “Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene,” an album with a geologically minded title but a beautifully focused program. Contrasting Romantic-era songs that exalt nature and contemporary works that feel alienated from it, she charted an unfortunate decline in humanity’s relationship with the environment through music.

In “Eden,” DiDonato picks up that strain, with an attempt to return listeners to the weakened but still-welcoming arms of Mother Earth. The album’s track list, echoed in the lineup at Carnegie, teleports listeners among different eras — touching on Ives, Mahler, Handel, Cavalli and Gluck — but never really recovers its pace after a detour to a pre-Romantic age.

DiDonato’s vibrato, which oscillates so quickly it seems to effervesce, is built for highly ornamented Baroque melodies. But her lively interpretations and imaginative use of straight tone broaden her palette of vocal colors and allow her to inhabit other eras. Whether her varied programming can tell a focused story is another question.

On tour, DiDonato has turned “Eden” into a semi-theatrical production — directed by Marie Lambert-Le Bihan and with lighting design by John Torres — that goes some way toward unifying the material. Many of the selections were strung together without pauses, which, without opportunities for applause, made for a grippingly immediate, fitfully inspiring evening.

The program began with Ives’s cosmic and mysterious “The Unanswered Question.” As smoke filled the darkened hall, the conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, bathed in light, coaxed a shivering sound from the strings of Il Pomo d’Oro. (Emelyanychev leads the group on the album as well.) DiDonato walked the perimeter of the audience, singing the trumpet’s part as a wordless incantation.

Rachel Portman’s “The First Morning of the World,” a song commissioned for “Eden,” used flowing woodwinds to conjure bird song in a gorgeous evocation of humanity’s origins. As the lights went up, the delicate pleasures of Mahler’s “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” followed. A 17th-century sinfonia, played with quicksilver energy by the ensemble, created a bridge to the past. That’s when things got weird.

DiDonato launched with gusto into a slight, strophic song by the Italian Baroque composer Biagio Marini. Its stepwise melody and fervent strumming was accompanied by the instrumentalists stomping their feet to the beat. Emelyanychev leaped from his seat at the harpsichord and broke out a recorder for a solo.

Then DiDonato assumed the role of a terrifying angel of justice with an aria from Josef Myslivecek’s “Adamo ed Eva,” an oratorio about the biblical expulsion from Eden. As the orchestra lent Baroque jauntiness to Myslivecek’s proto-Mozartean style, DiDonato channeled the text’s threats of plagues, fire and bloodshed. Blinding red light flooded the auditorium.

The concert began to lose its plot, but as that happened, DiDonato became freer to entertain. For Gluck’s “Ah! non son io che parlo,” an aria barely related to the evening’s themes, she tapped into an impressive chest voice and negotiated the aria’s leaps with full-throated relish. Teetering tantalizingly close to extremes of color, speed and volume, she drew raucous applause.

After that barnburner, she lost steam. DiDonato’s voice was patchy in the long lines of Handel’s “As with rosy steps the morn,” from “Theodora.” The orchestra, seemingly overwhelmed by the stylistic pastiche, clumsily negotiated the dynamics of Mahler’s soul-cracking “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.”

During encores, DiDonato introduced young people from the educational program Salute to Music and the All-City High School Chorus for an original song, performed with passionate directness and pieced together by a music teacher in Britain from the melodies and lyrics of his students. (DiDonato’s tour has entailed working with youth choirs at each stop.) “Look how powerful it is when we make something together,” said DiDonato, who sang Handel’s enchanting “Ombra mai fù” with the children huddled around her.

DiDonato has referred to “Eden” as a “wild garden.” And at Carnegie Hall it was: colorful, fecund and perhaps in need of pruning.

Joyce DiDonato

Performed at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.

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