Joyce DiDonato kicks up her heels on “Songplay” (Erato), an album of Italian Baroque arias, jazz ballads and highlights from the Great American Songbook that was released Feb. 1. Earlier this year, the celebrated mezzo-soprano toured in support of this imaginatively chosen repertoire with a five-piece ensemble of drums, bass, bandoneon and trumpet led by pianist and arranger Craig Terry.
“It is a bit of a cliché, but great music is great music, and aligning different genres side by side highlights this,” she said via e-mail. “Equally, in connecting these various songs together, you understand how the human condition hasn’t really changed that much over the centuries, as we’ve always been singing about the same thing: ‘I want love, I don’t have enough of it, please give me more of it!’”
Displaying her versatility, DiDonato will be presenting very different repertoire when she returns to the Chicago area for concerts May 2, 4 and 7 in Orchestra Hall and May 3 at Wheaton College as part of the CSO’s annual series of concerts in the suburban institution’s 2,357-seat Edman Memorial Chapel. With music director Riccardo Muti on the podium, she will take on Berlioz’s La Mort de Cléopâtre (The Death of Cleopatra), a 21-minute work written in 1829 when the French composer was 25 years old.
There is sometimes a danger of classically trained singers sounding unduly operatic when they take on popular songs, but DiDonato wasn’t worried about this potential when it came to “Songplay.” “We chose the repertoire very carefully, aiming to program songs that were written with ‘classic vocalism’ in mind, so it would feel very organic to bring my trained voice to the table,” she said. “However, as I always try to do with various roles and repertoire, it’s always important to meld into the sound world around you — so I had a wonderful time harmonizing with the different instruments and rhythms around me on this album.”