“I love you, Joyce!” shouted an admirer from the Jordan Hall balcony Friday night as the evening’s leading lady swished to center stage sheathed in an emerald green gown. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato made her Boston debut not with the Baroque showpieces or bel canto scenes that have won her acclaim at opera houses around the world, but with a program taken from her new album. “Songplay,” with a five-piece jazz combo, combines American standards with selections from “Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.”
Wait, what? Yes, you read that correctly: the same ecru G. Schirmer book that nearly every aspiring opera singer in the country must surmount. With a jazz combo.
For many divas, this kind of classical/jazz crossover would be so cheesy one might as well throw it in the fondue pot. Yet DiDonato joyfully twirled on the edge of high art and high camp, bringing to mind Susan Sontag’s words: “One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”
All the parts were in place for a wonderfully entertaining evening. To start, the instrumentalists were winners: At the piano was Craig Terry, a longtime DiDonato collaborator and the arranger of most of the evening’s numbers. Doyen jazz bassist Chuck Israels, ace drummer Jimmy Madison, polymath trumpeter Charlie Porter, and bandoneon master Lautaro Greco rounded out the ranks.
DiDonato herself is a performer of glorious voice and canny stage presence. Singing the Italian chestnuts, she was full-throated, without too much jazz affect save for some sly winks. The audience (mostly classical fans) giggled when she tacked on a vocal-jazz coda here and dueled with Porter there, growling out a few notes before embarking down a perfect chromatic stairstep scale and sliding the other way back.
When the novelty wore off, one could properly absorb the cool blue accents and runs with which she adorned “Nel cor piú non mi sento.” Highlights of the American side included a zingy “Lullaby of Birdland,” a crystalline “Will He Like Me?” in which one could see the shy ingenue shining through her face, and Gene Scheer’s hymnlike “Lean Away,” which she dedicated to the recently deceased genre chameleon André Previn.
Her banter was quick-witted and honest. At the beginning, she asked if there were any singers in the audience, and adoring cheers from what might have been most of the New England Conservatory voice department filled the air. Later, when a patron shouted “Turn off the microphone!” at the stage, she was unruffled.
The microphone itself posed a few problems. Everyone onstage was amplified, but when the busy orchestration and dense rhythms didn’t leave sufficient room, the signature burnished gleam of her voice sometimes sounded muffled. Her instrument has filled the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala (to name a few), but passed through the mic and melded with the band, it had trouble reaching row H of Jordan Hall. (A friend seated farther back reported he didn’t experience the same issues, so mileage may vary.)
All the same, her magnetic personality and rapport with the band carried the evening when the sound system couldn’t. Classical purists probably won’t like “Songplay,” and neither will those for whom whimsy is a four-letter word. For the rest of us: Sing on, Joyce, sing on.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.