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Last February mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato won her first Grammy Award in the Classical Vocal Solo category for her album Diva Divo. Earlier that afternoon, she became the first classical singer to perform at the Grammys. Following her standing ovation for her stirring rendition of the final aria from Rossini's famous opera La Cenerentola Di Donato says something even more memorable happened. A young teenaged-girl ran up to meet the opera star. "And she said, 'Excuse me, I just have to stop you and I just have to say, that's the most incredible thing I've ever heard. Where can I hear more of that?' That is the power of opera. I love it!" On her latest recording, Joyce DiDonato explores the larger than life Drama Queens.
"Either she's a queen or a sorceress or an empress," DiDonato explains, "And she's often in a very compromised situation or a situation that is full of angst that finally gives way so she can celebrate with great joy or it turns badly so suicide is obviously the only answer but before she does that, she's going to cry for seven minutes in the most heart-meltingly, time-stopping gorgeous melody that you could literally die when you hear it, you just think that is so beautiful. And that is why this world of Baroque opera really ignites my passion so much because it's so emotional and the longer I work on it, and the closer I am with these amazing characters, the more human they all are."
Throughout Drama Queens, you'll hear one aria after another that may move you to tears. In Reinhard Keiser's opera Fredegunda, The Spanish Princess Galsuinde offers a heart-wrenching lament as she sings of her pending death: "She's a bit of a schemer and a bit of a political maneuverer," DiDonato shares. "But in this piece she's going to her death and she's been left and things are not looking good for her and so she just has this moment of literally saying let me weep until I die. No, let me weep and then let me die. And of course she takes six or seven minutes to do it and it is this heartbreaking melody. I think that the poignancy of such a devastating emotion paired against such beauty of melody is why these pieces make people weep."
"You know, I just came from a 5-city tour in Europe, bringing this concert to the public for the first time and a piece like that has not been heard in modern age for at least 100 years. It's certainly not been recorded. And it's a real discovery. And to watch people hear this for the first time — it's not like they're hearing another Boheme or another Marriage of Figaro. And I'm watching people wiping tears from their eyes as I'm singing this. So I'm trying not to cry myself at the same time."
DiDonato says to her the most tragic character of all is, Irene, the Princess of Trebisond, the one who loses all hope. Geminiano Giacomelli wrote this aria for his Venetian opera Merope in 1734, "Irene is the one I feel the most sorry for because she doesn't really change in the course of the aria. She says, I've been cheated on, I've been betrayed, I am a really pathetic wife but I still love him. He's cheated me, he's scorned me and yet he's my entire heart. He's been unfaithful to me and yet I still hope that he might change. And a lot of times, in most of these arias, the character ends up in a very different place from where they started and I don't think she does. And I think, in a way, she's probably then the saddest of all. The orchestra is very jagged underneath. And it's very aggressive and almost violent and yet she floats above in this lyrical melody of beauty and it's this juxtaposition of those two things — I think her heartbeat is just raging and splitting inside of her and yet her head is saying: But I still love him. I haven't quite figured it out but honestly, all that having been said, it's one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever sung."
Not every piece is riddled with death and dying, crying and weeping. To lift your spirits listen to track eight featuring Rossane, Princess of Persia from Handel's Alessandro. In the effervescent aria, Brilla nel'alma, Rossane believes she's found her man — he's Alexander the Great, "You know there's some real joyful pieces on this as well," says DiDonato, "and I think this one is the real height of it. And of course it comes from Handel who's at the height of all these composers. And it's infectious. You can sort of get drunk in a way from the happiness and the percussiveness of it and the rhythm and the big coloratura and it's sort of all over the place and it's what we end the concert with, actually, on tour. And the audience, it seems to put them into a state of rapture and I love that."