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First Watch: Joyce DiDonato, 'Lascia ch'io pianga'

In a season of relentless shouting, the best antidote might be singing. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato's new album with conductor Maxim Emelyanychev and the ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro, In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music, uses Baroque arias to explore the pain and possibilities of these troubled times. A companion website invites anyone and everyone to answer the simple but loaded question, "In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?"

"I open my eyes and listen carefully," writes Adam, a student in Poland. "Chaos is loud and spectacular, but peace is always there. It is just harder to spot."

And this video for "Lascia ch'io pianga" (Allow me to weep) from Handel's opera Rinaldo distills tranquility through sunlight and a heartbreaking melody.

"I knew from the beginning that this concept came about that I wanted to venture into film and create a real story to accompany the album," DiDonato wrote in an email to NPR. "This is not only such a personal project, but it's also a timely one in which I'm hoping to engage the listener in a much more visceral way than a typical recording project. Because the visual world is such a dominant one, I felt the need to create something lasting."

DiDonato says her character, Almirena, "is being held prisoner and is in a deep state of despair, as she asks only to be left alone to weep, hoping that in her tears she might find freedom. It's a haunting aria of immense beauty (Handel's forte in highlighting the deepest pain in the most beautiful of melodies!), which can entertain a variety of interpretations. What we tried to show in this short film is a choice to renew hope and to search for the way out, instead to simply collapse in despair."

DiDonato is no stranger to cutting-edge and socially motivated theatrical projects. A staunch supporter of LGBT rights, she performed another aria on this album, "When I am laid in earth," at New York's historic Stonewall Inn in an NPR Music Field Recording. Earlier this month she was the first opera singer to appear in the one-person off-Broadway show White Rabbit Red Rabbit, by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, in which each actor receives the script only upon arriving for the performance. Her collaborator on this video, director and designer James Darrah, directed the Opera Philadelphia world premiere of composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek's Breaking the Waves, an adaptation of the Lars von Trier film.

DiDonato, Darrah and company shot the video near Santa Fe, N.M. "I was particularly jazzed to know that Lonesome Dove — my favorite miniseries of all time — was filmed there." she says. "It was the perfect setting to find a sense of isolation necessary for this particular aria." Her goal mirrored what she hopes to achieve with the album as a whole: "a journey from desolation and darkness into hope and light."

This little film is indeed a testament to an eternal, and eternally inspiring, paradox. Even when being held captive — whether by walls or grief — a singer and all who hear her can feel free.

In War and Peace: Harmony through Music is out Nov. 4 on Erato/Warner Classics. A U.S. tour follows Dec. 2-15.


Lascia ch'io pianga

mia cruda sorte,

e che sospiri

la libertà.

Il duolo infranga

queste ritorte,

de' miei martiri

sol per pietà.

— Giacomo Rossi

Allow me to weep

for my cruel fate,

and to mourn

my lost freedom.

May my sorrow break

these chains,

if only out of pity

for my suffering.

— Translation by Susannah Howe

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
Mark Mobley