Last night Joyce DiDonato and il Pomo d’Oro brought their touring show Eden to Koerner Hall. It’s one of those genre defying shows that’s not especially easy to describe. Basically it’s a recital of art songs and arias; most of the latter from the 18th century, with chamber orchestra accompaniment. It’s also staged but not with any obvious narrative. Rather Joyce interacts with two very large metal hoops which move around and rotate on their axes. All of this is backed up by John Torres’ complex and sometimes spectacular lighting plot. Cynics might call it gimmicky but given the difficulty of building the audience for vocal recitals I’m all for trying new things and the audience loved it so I think that’s justification enough.
As the title suggests there was a theme. Essentially it’s a plea for us to tread gently on the earth. Not all the material was obviously relevant to the theme but much was. Pieces such as Ives’ The Unanswered Question, Copland’s “Nature the Gentlest Mother” from 8 Poems of Emily Dickinson and Rachel Portman’s The First Morning of the World are obvious fits. Two songs from the Rückert-Lieder; “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!” and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” were perhaps less obvious though the latter, coming as it did at the end and after Handel’s “As with rosy steps the morn” suggested a multiplicity of ways of thinking about returning to Eden. The middle part of the programme was a selection of mostly baroque arias that weren’t obvious fits with the theme but allowed Joyce to do what she does best and likely what the audience mostly came for namely fiercely emotional and brilliant vocal pyrotechnics.
Some of the material seemed to suit Joyce’s voice better than other bits. The baroque arias were exactly what one might expect and were accompanied with equal fire by the band (several of whose members were jump ins owing to visa issues) and conductor Maxim Emelyanychev. The Mahler was also very good; clearly and affectingly sung, and if “As with rosy steps the morn” will always and ever evoke Lorraine Hunt for me, Joyce sang it very well.
There was “Schmerzen” from the Wesendonck Lieder as an encore followed by what I’m tempted to call “the preachy bit” but that would be unduly cynical. Eden has a purpose; to use the power of making music to bring us together to do the right thing for the planet and part of its touring process is to reach out to schools in the cities and towns where the show is performed. So we got to hear a choir from Oakville sing the “Eden anthem” and Joyce making a speech about the project (and ragging on Toronto for having a better baseball team than KC… Hey Joyce, we don’t care if you hate us, everybody does, but it’s just because they are jealous). “Ombra mai fu” made a lovely and fitting close.
So, an interesting and, provided one didn’t overthink it, very enjoyable approach to a surprisingly wide range of music. As I said earlier I’ll go for anything that gets more people out to vocal recitals and this one, while by no means sold out, played to a larger Koerner audience than any other I’ve seen post-pandemic. And they lapped it up.
Photos courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall; Lisa Sakulensky