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Why can’t more concerts be like this? Performers at the top of their art; a compelling, perhaps profound theme; tight integration of music, dance, video art, theater, atmospheric lighting and, most of all, immersive storytelling.

In War and Peace: Harmony through Music, a sort of one-woman pastiche opera created and driven by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, arrived Sunday evening at Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. It’s the last leg of a three-year CD and international touring project. In it, she asks the listener to hear this baroque music and contemplate the question, In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?

To set the mood, the show began before it started. When the audience entered the auditorium, the lights were already dim, and DiDonato was onstage, looking despondent with dark warrior-queen makeup on her face and looking ravishing in her Vivienne Westwood-designed gown. Dancer Manuel Palazzo, as her androgynous alter ego, or perhaps as the wounded half of her psyche, was asleep at the lip of the stage. Dry-ice fog shrouded the performers.

Then period-instrument ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro entered as a group and launched into “Scenes of Horror, Scenes of Woe,” a sorrowful, devastating aria from Handel’s Jephtha. Streaks of light flashed across the darkened stage, like cannon fire in the night. It was immediately apparent that the creative team — Ralf Pleger (stage director), Henning Blum (lighting) and Yousef Iskandar (video projections) — were seamlessly complementing each other.

War and its emotional effects occupied the concert’s first half, taking us on a personal journey from violence and suffering to grief. “Dido’s Lament,” from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, sits a little low for DiDonato’s voice, but in this setting and at a slow tempo, her portrayal was tremendously effective. “Remember me, but ah!, forget my fate,” she sings. And that’s what this was all about: singing beautifully, to be sure, but trying to go deep into a character, portraying her in three rounded dimensions.

Joyce DiDonato sings on stage at Emory's Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.

As a vocalist, DiDonato paints with so many vibrant colors with her beautiful and fluid singing.

Her partner in full was Maxim Emelyanychev, who led Il Pomo d’Oro from the harpsichord, that most wicked of instruments. The Russian conductor would shake his fist at the violins to get more sound from them, or stand and pound on his keyboard in scenes of heightened anxiety and fury. Between arias, the band played short instrumental works, exceedingly soulful and wrenching, including a Purcell chaconne in G minor, a Gesualdo motet and Arvo Pärt’s “Da pacem, Domine.” Emelyanychev is at the start of a major career. You’ll see his big name again.       

Handel arias found DiDonato at her superlative best. In Handel’s opera Agrippina, the conniving title character plays deadly politics, trying to put her son on the throne of the Roman Empire. She sings of deception and revenge, enemies and liars. But Handel, insightful on the foibles of human emotion, has Agrippina close her aria “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” (“O thoughts, you persecute me”) with a moment of reflection and self-doubt. DiDonato paints with so many colors, and her fluid, fluttery singing of the word “pensieri,” with the oboist standing in accompaniment, was just imperishably beautiful. (To rave reviews, she recently sang Agrippina at London’s Covent Garden, with Emelyanychev conducting.)

Palazzo then danced to a Gesualdo instrumental motet and made it clear that our protagonist had been bruised, beaten down, abandoned. Her reply — the most tender and moving thing I’ve heard in a long time — was “Lascia ch’io pianga” (“Allow me to weep” from Handel’s opera Rinaldo), which she sang crouching on the floor. White rose petals gently rained down the walls of the concert hall, another moment when a simple, understated video projection almost brought a tear to the eye. We see and feel that war and peace reflect the external world but also the battle within ourselves.

Mezza-soprano Joyce DiDonato during a poignant moment of her program at Emory's Schwartz Center.

DiDonato’s drive and imagination are rare among classical artists.

It would be understandable if music depicting war were more exciting, more animated than the music of peace. After all, soldiers returning from combat often describe feeling more “alive” in the heat of war than in the infinitely more desirable state of tranquility at home.

Yet slowly across the Peace half of the program, DiDonato seemed to answer her own question, most exquisitely, with nature. Springtime is one answer, when life renews itself. More Handel arias closed the program and renewed our optimism that the chaos will settle and peace will spread. “Augelletti, che cantate” (“Little birds, you who sing,” from the opera Rinaldo) features an enchanting duet for mezzo and descant recorder, making a high-pitched, shepherdy kind of sound. Soon the recorder player got herself into the act, approaching the dancer and playing off DiDonato, side by side. It was yet another fabulous moment, when time seemed to stop.  

After a lengthy speech on her project, without mentioning by name the chaos-creator-in-chief in Washington, DiDonato slipped into a surprising encore, finding hope in tomorrow: Richard Strauss’ “Morgen,” a bit of late romanticism on this all-baroque program. The spare, airy version for this ensemble was just right. The solo violin, so warm and lovely, shaded his playing with vibrato. 

So to ask again: Why can’t more concerts be like this? DiDonato is one of many great singers today totally committed to her art and her voice. But her energy and drive are rare among classical artists. Dreaming up an expensive production then planning its every detail, promoting it, finding special funding to help defray costs and making it so great that presenters (like Emory’s Candler Concert Series) are eager to book it — that’s what too few artists are interested in, or capable of, doing.

Of course, she could have easily sung the exact same program without lights or a dancer or a complete theatrical presentation — a normal performance, in other words. No doubt it would have been a very fine evening. Instead, In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music made it a thought-provoking event, perhaps the concert of the year.

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