For anyone concerned with American contemporary opera, the name Joyce DiDonato likely rings a bell. Whether it’s for her numerous Grammy nominations, or her 2018 Oliver Award pick-up for Outstanding Achievement in Opera, DiDonato has spent her decades-long career trailblazing from the New York City Opera to Carnegie Hall, where she now teaches an annual masterclass. In 2022 however, DiDonato decided to take her talents international, embarking on the “EDEN” world tour where she performs, in all of its glory, her brand-new album of the same name.
To call “EDEN” simply a rendition of DiDonato’s own album is imprecise — this is because, among other things, “EDEN” is an experience of creation, education and music, culminating into a performance that transcends both time and place. To her credit, DiDonato’s showing at Zellerbach Hall on Jan. 21 could have taken place anywhere: When “EDEN” begins, all but the stage melts away, and nothing but her own striking voice and magnificent symphonic accompaniment are present. This is because DiDonato has that rare ability to command the stage, the kind heard about often but rarely experienced live, and “EDEN” is a timeless showing of such talent.
In her first appearance onstage, DiDonato wields a strange metal pole as she performs, effortlessly, Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” which quite literally sets the stage for the remainder of her performance. This is because, as later discovered in the show, the object brought with her is the final missing piece to the large rings that eventually begin to rotate around her platform, referencing a completeness discovered through the music of “EDEN.” As her opening number suggests, questions are provoked, answered and left hanging throughout the night, offering an intriguing depth to DiDonato’s production.
Through her own movements, expressions and the set itself, DiDonato’s “EDEN” is especially theatrical, bringing added emotion to already moving renditions from the likes of Rachel Portman’s “The First Morning of the World” and Aaron Copland’s “Nature, the gentlest mother.” Alongside flawless vocalization, DiDonato moves with the ferocity and expressiveness of a dancer, interacting with the orchestra as if in constant dialogue, and never for a moment giving up the illusion of performance.
Of course, no amount of theatrics could compare to her utterly brilliant vocal talent, which reminds the audience with each piece that DiDonato is one of the greatest voices in modern classical music. Her silky yet firm vocal timbre resonated throughout Zellerbach Hall, often paired with her impressive ability to emote vocally, as if the pain, excitement, passion and hope in each song is concrete and palpable. Defying language and cultural barriers, her transcendent voice at times feels otherworldly, yet somehow always familiar and exceedingly current, just as the words she sings remain timeless yet relevant.
“EDEN” is in many ways an environmentally conscious set, which seems intended to educate as much as to reflect, especially on the ways society lives with and frequently harms nature itself. Powerfully, DiDonato does not view this subject with endless pessimism, but instead, through “EDEN,” offers some semblance of hope and inspiration to change the damaged relationship between humanity and nature. She even, in short intermissions, encouraged the audience to ruminate on the personal connection they share with our natural world, clearly stating her hope that “EDEN” serves as encouragement to contribute — in big and small ways — to cultivating what’s left of mother nature.
In the conclusion of “EDEN,” DiDonato brought out the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, continuing her tradition of highlighting local children’s choirs on tour, and performed with them to the tune of a piece written by the children she’s met on the road. They sang of the dangers of deforestation, a message amplified by the voices of the very children to whom this destruction effects the most. Then, led by fellow member Lauren Brenner, the choir performed Niels Wilhelm Gade’s “Morgensang,” helping to bring “EDEN” to a powerfully thought-provoking conclusion.
What audience members are left with at the final dim of the stage lights, ultimately, is DiDonato’s uncanny ability to express and create art which brings together community, and further inspires us to reshape the precious world that surrounds us.