This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

For some time, our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, has had his eye on the young American opera singer Joyce DiDonato. She's just released her first CD and Lloyd has this review.

(Soundbite of opera music)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: The last time I saw Joyce DiDonato on stage, she was playing "Cinderella" in Massenet's sweetly lyrical romantic opera. She was touching and loveable, exactly right for the role. So I was surprised to discover that her first recording was an album of Handel arias called "Furore," the Italian word for madness or fury. And she plays a number of characters who couldn't be less like Cinderella, heroines and heroes who are tormented by jealous rages, obsessed with personal and political revenge, or suffering insane despair over the damage they've caused.

Even the most gorgeous of these Handel arias have an edge, often created by the tension Handel exploits between the powerful emotional situations and the neoclassical formality of his musical structures, which includes a lot of repetition. During the 19th century and well into the 20th, Handel was ignored because singers didn't understand the dramatic power of these repetitions. In these so-called da capo(ph) arias, loosely translated as from the top, there's a long first section, then a change of mood, and then the entire first section is repeated. In productions, and on recordings, these arias were often abbreviated or the repeated section was just eliminated.

But in the 1980s the extraordinary Handel productions of Peter Sellers and the late Craig Smith taught us the way this music communicated obsession and that these repetitions embodied some of the opera's most intense states of mind. Joyce DiDonato is from that new generation of singers who understands the nature of these repetitions. In Aria Dante's great tragic aria "Scherza infida", the hero laments his betrayal and warns the woman he believes is unfaithful that he'll return to haunt her after his death.

(Soundbite of opera music)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: But in the repeat, Joyce DiDonato not only projects Aria Dante's increased anguish; we can practically hear him turning into a ghost.

(Soundbite of opera music)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Joyce DiDonato is a strong vocal actress. She's as impressive in her quiet singing as in her brilliant coloratura, and she makes distinctions between characters who are demented or just plain angry, or sad. In one of these arias, she seems to be trying too hard. "Dejanira in Hercules" is one of Handel's great operatic roles. There's a new live recording of arias from "Hercules" sung by the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson in 1999, conducted by Craig Smith. Her "Dejanira" is a grand and heartbreaking tragic figure.

But DiDonato, in her effort to show as Dejanira's madness, makes her sound like a witch than a madwoman. But in an aria from Handel's Julius Cesar, DiDonato is right on target. She plays Sesto(ph), the son of Pompeii(ph), who has just been assassinated by one of Cesar's henchmen. In this revenge aria, Sesto was a kind of younger Hamlet trying to convince himself to take action. Conductor Christophe(ph) Rouse and his period instrument group understand that Handel's music is depicting the way Sesto is being strangled by his conflicting feelings. Even snakes, Sesto sings, are not satisfied until they have injected venom into their attacker's blood and Handel let's us hear the venom of revenge that is also trickling into Sesto's own blood.

(Soundbite of opera music)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Joyce DiDonato has made a brave debut by presenting some of the most difficult music ever written for a singer. I can't wait to hear what she does next.

DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed "Furore," a new album of Handel arias sung by Joyce DiDonato.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.