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Joyce DiDonato's 'Eden' beckons humanity back to the garden

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato's new album, <em>Eden</em>, is a meditation on the natural world.
Sergi Jasanada
Courtesy of the artist
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato's new album, Eden, is a meditation on the natural world.

Scientists aren't the only professionals concerned about the health of the planet these days. Opera star Joyce DiDonato, on her new album Eden, proposes that Mother Nature has a lot to teach us, if we'd only pay attention.

The music of Eden asks more questions than it answers — beginning with the opening track, The Unanswered Question, a mystical orchestral piece from 1908 by the American iconoclast Charles Ives. DiDonato, placing her own stamp on the performance, steps in to sing the undulating solos originally written for the trumpet. Her wordless slides start the album from a celestial perch — in preparation, perhaps, for considering the Earth below. The sinuous, slow motion phrases repeat, as if DiDonato is returning over and over to a burning question.

And what is the question? The answer, in part, lies in the world premiere recording of "The First Morning of the World," a beautiful, searching song by Oscar-winning composer Rachel Portman (Emma) with words by opera librettist Gene Scheer (Moby-Dick). To gain wisdom, the song seems to suggest, is to understand how much we don't understand. "I am filled with nothing but questions," DiDonato sings. But later, in the song's touching conclusion, she implores nature for insight: "Touch me, teach me to sing notes that bloom like a canopy of leaves."

DiDonato is backed by the incisive Italian chamber orchestra Il Pomo d'Oro, led by Maxim Emelyanychev, and together they span more than 500 years of music — from early baroque operas to new works. Even centuries ago, composers addressed the environment: In the oratorio Adam and Eve by Josef Myslivecek, a contemporary of Mozart, DiDonato launches into a list of natural disasters that could be ripped from today's headlines — first floods, then fires, even a plague.

Eden counterbalances its environmental angst with a more benevolent perspective, in words by Emily Dickinson set to music by Aaron Copland. After a volley of birdsong in the winds, the soothing first line – and title of the song – pours out over a drone of strings: "Nature, the gentlest mother, impatient of no child." In the album's liner notes, DiDonato takes care to present herself as a "belligerent optimist," one who believes both in "the power of humanity" and the "guiding force of the natural world."

Even if you don't quite buy the larger concept behind this concept album, DiDonato's voice is truly one of nature's great wonders: luminous, silken, flexible, full of colors and expressive shadings, always supported by the breath so even the finest threads of tone shine. In an aria from Handel's Theodora, one long-lined phrase offers a radiant example: "Raise our hopes of endless light." Joyce DiDonato's Eden may not have all the answers, but it raises the right questions.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.