When Joyce DiDonato sweeps on with tousled blonde mane and in a skimpy scarlet bodice, you know this Southern belle means business of a steamy sort. We saw her at Covent Garden as the scorned Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni: her sulphurous rage incinerated everything it touched. So when she gives a recital entitled Furore: Handel's Scenes of Madness, we know roughly what to expect.
We're not disappointed. Her first aria, "Dolce riposo", is from the amorously-thwarted Medea: DiDonato's tone has a burnished brilliance, and her phrases are exquisitely shaped. Then comes an explosion as Medea gives vent to her jealousy: here she runs the gamut from plangent wistfulness to enraged coloratura threats. Meanwhile, under finely calibrated direction by Christophe Rousset, the strings and woodwind of Les Talens Lyriques underscore her every emotional twist. When she declares, voice shadowed by a solo oboe, that she will die, and spells out what those tortures will be, she lets rip with the virtuosity one imagines Handel demanded of his divas.
Readers who missed this concert can buy the CD it was designed to launch, but the difference between the two is revealing. Singers usually sound "better" on CD, but DiDonato sounds infinitely more exciting in reality. Her artistry is consummate: in contrast to her nearest rival in this repertoire, Magdalena Kozena, who uglifies her tone for dramatic effect, DiDonato's sound is always beautiful, yet never at the expense of the drama. When she sings an aria that would have been delivered by a castrato, she divests herself of femininity; when she mimics dying, her voice diminishes to a golden thread.