Joyce DiDonato at Wigmore Hall


Sometimes it’s impossible to find words to describe music. Often it’s about what we feel, rather than what we hear or can explain. Music can transport, exhilarate, overwhelm and devastate. It can remind us of our humanity. When a performance makes you cry (twice), the last thing you want to do is try and pin that down with words. But, when the reason you were there in the first place was to review it, you have to try and find some words. Here are some words…

There’s something incredible about witnessing a person at the very top of their game do what they do best. Whether it’s watching Roger Federer slap a backhand down the line, hearing Chris Thile find notes you’re pretty sure don’t exist on a mandolin, or seeing Imelda Staunton command a stage, it can be life-affirming and jaw dropping in equal measure. That’s how I feel hearing Joyce DiDonato and the Bretano Quartet.

After a mesmerising first half of this recital featuring songs by Richard Strauss and Debussy, I could have left happy, but the real emotional heart of the evening came after the interval, Jake Heggie’s Camille Claudel: Into the Fire, written specifically for Joyce DiDonato. A work of astonishing depth and power, it touches upon subjects you could spend a whole opera exploring. At its core, it’s a work about identity, in particular, one woman’s struggle to find her own identity, not as a woman, artist, lover or mother but as a human being, regardless of her relationships to anyone else.

From the outset Camille is searching: for her lover (“Rodin! Rodin! Was there ever a time you wanted me to find you?”); for her art (“In the clay I search with my fingers to uncover something true”); for herself (“Is it in the spirit? Is it in the flesh? Where do I abide?”). Indeed, Where Do I Abide could easily be the work’s alternate title.

There are incredibly strong parallels with Katie Mitchel’s wonderful Royal Opera production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammnermoor which we reviewed when it opened. There are also hints of Britten, ranging from the exploration of madness in Rejoice in the Lamb to the bitter struggle of individual against society in Peter Grimes. Camille Claudel: Into the Fire is as powerful as either. I suspect it’s a work that will carry on revealing new depths with every hearing.

The centrepiece of the cycle, La Petite Chatelaine, is also its beating emotional heart. After aborting Rodin’s child at his instruction, Camille says: “I did as he said and returned you to clay. Oh, how could I bleed such a blessing away?” Before being declared insane and institutionalised she not only destroys most of her life’s work, she also destroys her other supreme act of creativity, seemingly not by her own choice. Incarceration doesn’t always require walls and bars, especially for women, particularly women who don’t fit the mould of their times. It’s a heart-stopping moment.

The theme that emerges from Camille’s quest for identity is of our impermanence, our being always in flux. Of a moment in time, a shape emerging slowly from clay, only to return again. We’re all a work in progress, in context, in time, eventually to return to clay and be forgotten. The shape we find in our brief time here is the purpose of our lives. That’s the very nature of art, and of humanity.

The work’s final lines underscore this:

“Every dream I ever had was of movement. Touching. Breathing. Reaching. Hovering. Something always about to change…A Photograph? Just me and you. Yes. I understand. I must be very still. Thank you for remembering me.”

After the beauty and lyricism of the Strauss and Debussy, the variety of Heggie’s music, and the depth and quality of Gene Scheer’s outstanding text, gives Joyce DiDonato superb opportunity to stretch out. There are beautiful lines of course, but also plenty of angles and edges to push off from to explore dynamic, colour and depth, which she does superbly. The impression you get is of watching an artist who has endless options at her disposal and can choose colour or inflection in every moment as the piece develops. There’s no sense we’re simply being treated to a well-chosen set of decisions made in the rehearsal room, this is living, breathing, bleeding art of the highest quality imaginable.

How do you top that? With a double encore of Strauss’s Morgen, to remind us that “Tomorrow the sun will shine again” and a beautiful “Silent Night” that involved the entire Wigmore Hall audience providing choral accompaniment, turning a recital into a shared moment that will live with everyone involved for years to come.

It’s not often you leave a concert hall thinking ‘Only 500 people in the world saw this and I’m one of them’. It’s an enervating, elevating and humbling feeling; one you’re lucky to experience once or twice in your life. Did I mention I cried (twice)?

For more information about Wigmore Hall’s Concert and Artist Series, visit