Joyce DiDonato's 'Diva Divo'

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Gender-bending has long been a staple in pop culture and fashion -- think of Lady Gaga’s male alter ego Jo Calderone, the looks of fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier or the glam sensibility of 70’s rockers like David Bowie. It’s also a calling card on the opera stage. On “Diva, Divo,” mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato presents a collection of arias contrasting "trouser" roles with "skirt" arias from the same opera or story. It’s our Album of the Week.

A common device in 18th-century opera, the trouser role came from the tradition of assigning a leading role to the high voice of a castrato, especially as women were periodically banned from the stage. As castrati mercifully fell out of fashion and disappeared, mezzo-sopranos frequently took over the gender-bending convention, playing the princes, page boys and shepherds (countertenors have reclaimed some of these roles, affecting a girl’s voice in a man’s body).

DiDonato explains in an introductory essay that the idea of pairing male and female characters came out of the search to find a cohesive way of telling these famous stories while highlighting the play between boy and girl, diva and divo. So in versions of Cinderella by Rossini and Massenet, she sings both the title character and Prince Charming. In Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, she alternates from Cherubino to Susanna, and in Faust she plays both the lovestruck boy Siebel (in Gounod’s version), and Marguerite (in Berlioz's). DiDonato brings coloratura fireworks to Bellini's Romeo and a serene simplicity to Berlioz's Juliet.

With the help of short cameos by five other singers, the orchestra and chorus of the Opéra de Lyon and conductor Kazushi Ono, DiDonato displays the full package vocally, whether spinning out pyrotechnics in Rossini or producing a big, almost Wagnerian sound in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos.

Diva Divo
Joyce DiDonato
Orcehstre et Choeur de L'opera de Lyon
Kazushi Ono
Available at Arkivmusic.com