DiDonato is a mezzo marvel

When Kansas-born mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato walks onstage Monday night in Herbst Theatre, she will return to the city that rewarded her with her first major operatic leading role.

She also revisits assured that her new Rossini recital on EMI Classics, “Colbran the Muse,” has further secured her reputation as our generation’s pre-eminent American mezzo-soprano in the operas of Rossini and Handel.

DiDonato’s voice did not always flow as freely as it now does. As she explained by phone, in tones as passionate and captivating as on her CDs, she was a very different singer when she first entered the Houston Opera Program.

That was in 1996, a year before her summer in San Francisco as a Merola Opera Program participant.

“I did not really know how to sing,” she says. “It took about three years to break down the muscular way I was singing and replace with a more natural technique that is based on the breath.”

Breathtaking is more like it. No wonder Merola assigned her the lead in what has become one of her signature roles, Cinderella in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola.” At first listening to the way DiDonato seamlessly ascends two-octave scales before dropping down to the bottom of her range will affirm that she is one phenomenal singer.

The Herbst recital will be a mixture of several concerts she has done and plans to do. “I don’t get so many chances to sing in San Francisco,” she says, “so I wanted to do something that is very close to me and I think really representative of the kind of artist that I am
today.”

The first half of the program is all-Italian art song. The mostly familiar set begins with a rouser, and includes a selection from her new CD — the “Willow” scene from Rossini’s “Otello,” that is really a song in operatic guise.

The final group is by Francesco Santoliquido, whom DiDonato has nicknamed “Frankie Holy Water.” His extremely lush, romantic, Puccini-esque pieces should be a knockout.

The second half is “very direct, passionate all-Spanish music” that should give us plenty to shout about. “Haunting gems” by Obradors will be followed by Granados’ three “La Maja Dolorosa,” which are epic in their depiction of loss and mourning.

The closers by Montsalvatge are quite evocative of Cuba. “You feel the cigar smoke on the porch,” she says, “and the sort of brazen attitude that comes across.”

Knowing that attendees will be itching for more spectacular vocal displays, she teasingly acknowledges, “There may be a few encores from the disc that show up on the concert.” I’ll bet there will be if enough fellow attendees applaud and holler like crazy.

 

IF YOU GO

Joyce DiDonato

Presented by San Francisco Performances

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Tickets: $32 to $49

Contact: (415) 392-4400; www.performances.org

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