08 Sep 2008

Cecilia Bartoli at the Musikverein Wien

Every time an artist walks onto the performance stage, he or she attempts to give the performance of their lives, focusing on everything they have learned prior to, and giving of themselves in an unprecedented way.

In my many years of reviewing and observing operas I have often been privy to magnificent performances, and some not so great; however, the concert given by Cecilia Bartoli to a full-house at the Musikverein in Vienna has surpassed expectation and remains at the top of my list as a spectacular live performance

The air of anticipation outside the concert hall was monumental. Of course, posters and advertisements of Signora Bartoli’s lovely visage graced subways, street posts, and the concert district. All of Vienna seemed to be in a frenzy to welcome this most endearing and talented performer. The line-up for standing room tickets was unprecedented, and the concert hall was filled to its very core. In my many years of attending concerts, I have never felt such energy over one given performer, let alone in Vienna where musical standards are of high public interest.

For many months prior to the release of her new album, Maria Malibran: La Rivoluzione Romantica, Bartoli had given interviews and spoken publicly about her passion and devotion to the artistry of Maria Malibran, a young and talented singer who died at a young age, and perhaps before she had achieved the pinnacle of her career. Expressing a profound interest in musicology, Signora Bartoli has conducted a significant amount of research for this album, making it all the more interesting to listeners, fans, and scholars. Although her other albums have been successful, there is something more intimate about this album, not to mention that it marks her most superb singing to date.

As the Kammerorchester of Basel arrived on-stage, one noticed that the platform for the conductor remained empty. The audience was silenced and the concert began with a performance of the Overture from La Figlia dell’aria, written by Manuel del Pòpulo Vicente García, one of the forefathers of Italian singing technique. The piece exuded distinct 18th century attributes and grand dynamic shifts that were well controlled by the chamber orchestra. The typical melodic influx of classical style with underlying 16th note rhythms soared into the more than wonderful acoustic of the Großer Musikvereinssaal. The overture was a pleasant way to begin the concert. It set the stage for what was to be an emotional and exciting evening.

The audience, silent, waited for the stage door to open and out glided Signora Bartoli, in a beautiful crimson red gown. Already on their feet, the audience welcomed her with enthusiasm and love. Bartoli beamed with pleasure and welcomed them with as much endearment as they offered her. Not only did she take center-stage as the singer, she took her place on the conductor’s podium, facing the audience. On this evening, Bartoli was not simply the performer, but also the conductor. The orchestra began the music to the recitative, scene and aria, “E non lo vedo…son Regina. Bartoli’s colorito and the manner in which she uses her voice as an instrument is remarkable. Her impeccable use of sotto voce and the attention she pays to textual inflection is exuberant and emotionally captivating. She paces herself through each verse and mingles her voice with the orchestra in such a way that nothing ever seems out-of-place. In the middle of the aria, she began to employ her explosive fioritura, which is fiery and seamless. Her depth of range and approach to every vocal idiom she uses are, perhaps, technically perfect. Also affective, was the shift in mood she could create, from a happy one to one that exuded pathos. Her accurate and aesthetically appropriate singing is imbued with a generosity and genuineness that one must see and hear live, in order to fully appreciate the extent of Signora Bartoli’s talent. How brilliant is a performer who can stand and sing with such accuracy and emotion, and also listen simultaneously to every instrument in the orchestra and give them cues as to their entrances. Bartoli conducted the Kammerorchester with delicate and swift movements of her wrists to the amazement of the audience, who vocalized their feelings of gratitude.

Giuseppe Persiani’s Romanza from Ines de Castro, “Cari Giorni,” was perhaps the most moving performance of the concert. Bartoli’s opening lines, “Cari giorni a me sereni d’innocenza e di virtù,” brought many to tears. She thoroughly understands how to use the voice to express emotion, a trait that is paramount to her artistry. The ominous opening of the Romanza was lyrically accompanied by solo cello and harp. Bartoli never sings two notes in the same shape. She is constantly fluctuating and employing different colours, using straight tone and then spinning with such intensity that one could easily forget that this is a human voice. It seems metaphysical: of this world, but shared with a higher realm. A strong silence filled the hall before applause erupted with force.

After a short orchestral Scherzo by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, to provide a moment’s rest for the singer/conductor, Bartoli emerged to sing “Infelice” a scene and aria also written by Mendelssohn. The long and intricate text was moving and the orchestra was profoundly sensitive to Bartoli’s instructive gestures. Again, her lines are seamless and the coloratura that pours from her could be described as one continuous and linear expression of beauty.

“Her lines are seamless and the coloratura that pours from her could be described as one continuous and linear expression of beauty.”

Next, a moment of sheer excitement for the audience as Bartoli sang one of her famous arias, “Nacqui all’affanno…Non più mesta,” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola. I will go so far as to say that this is “exclusively” Bartoli’s aria. No one can perform it with the same intensity, brilliance, and sheer energy that she possesses. It is a tour-de-force. The sound that poured from her, the extensiveness of her range was nothing other than a magnificent gesture of joy and love. The audience called on her for five curtain-calls prior to the intermission, to cheer their hearts out for this singular woman whose voice and joyous presence filled the entire building, and the entire city with love.

The second half continued with Rossini’s “Bel raggio lusinghier…Dolce pensiero,” from Semiramide. Bartoli’s coloratura seemed even more surreal here, with her delicate shaping and long languid breaths. She once again showed herself to be una virtuosa. With pure Bel Canto technique at her disposal, she was able to shift the mood of each section of the cavatina, and used articulation as an expressive device, never disconnected from the text—a feat that is difficult in many Bel Canto operas because of the influx of vocal pyrotechnics. The cabaletta was fiery and an authentic example of an unprecedented virtuosic instrument. Her ornaments, which may or may not have been improvised, were all aesthetically tasteful and brilliantly formulated.

After an Overture from Il Signor Bruschino, Bartoli performed, “Assisa a piè d’un salice—Deh, calma” from Rossini’s Otello. Even through the lengthy text, Bartoli kept every eye focused on her. She was a spectacle all unto herself. The sensitive harp sequences married with her voice in lovely tranquil moments that moved many to tears. What is perhaps most endearing about Bartoli is her ability to make us believe. She is never fake. Everything she sings, she feels. Each piece was in a different style and yet, she melds them together in one brilliant ideal of expression.


Perhaps the most endearing moment of the evening came in Michael William Balfe’s, Yon moon o’er the mountains, which Bartoli sang with such affection. Although she did not sing one German number in a primarily German-speaking city, she sang this lovely strophic song with slightly affected English, but so beautiful was her attempt that the audience exploded in applause, as they had for every other piece, yet the applause grew in length and intensity as the concert came to an end.

Her final number was Rataplan, written by Malibran herself, which Bartoli performed with the percussionist of the Kammerorchester, who produced the sound of the marching drum. It was an absolute moment of energetic expression for Bartoli. She beamed with happiness as she completed the number to a magnificent standing ovation that seemed to last forever.

After acknowledging her audience, those who sat behind her, around her, up in the balcony and in the orchestral section, she turned and shook hands with every member of the Kammerorchester in a gesture of supreme grace. The work she has conducted on Malibran and her obvious understanding of this music, in the most detailed sense, culminated in this performance; and yet, Bartoli was not willing to take all the credit. She openly expressed her respect for these performers who were able to help her bring her project to life.

The applause continued for many moments, and even after having received numerous bouquets of flowers, she emerged again to sing part of Rataplan, but this was not enough for the audience of course, who began to push their way toward the stage. Those in the standing room were pushing their way into the concert hall, as well, from outside the house. Graciously, Bartoli sang Nacqui l’affanno again, and this time she purposely brought the orchestra to faster speeds to increase the speed of her coloratura. In a moment of genuine communication, she held a high note while putting her hands in the air and waving with both hands to the audience, who waved back at her with exuberance. The concert was over and the smiles and tears of this audience lasted out the door and into the night.

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Signora Bartoli after the concert. After several hours of signing autographs, she emerged out the artist’s door with her mother, who has supported her and been her teacher and coach since a young age. With a smile on her face, Signora Bartoli graciously accepted my praises and we exchanged cordialities in Italian. My comment to her was one of great respect for the work she had done, but my comment to concert-going audiences is this: For many years Ms. Bartoli has been often criticised for the size of her voice, not being big enough, and it is my professional opinion that the voice does not need to be large in order to communicate expression, emotion, and musicality. There are those with voices larger than hers who fail to communicate as she does, and whose technique is far from what hers is. It is a voice that touches you in the most intimate emotional place, no matter where you are seated. Furthermore, I would argue that there is a significant amount of power in Ms. Bartoli’s voice and the technique is more than impressive. Oftentimes society is met with something that is out of the norm; immediately, certain individuals are quick to place ideas upon it that really have nothing to do with the truth because it frightens them or because they do not fully understand what it is. Ms. Bartoli’s talent is extraordinary and hers is a musical truth: to bring joy, to those who wish to feel it, through her voice. There were surely many people in that concert hall who had had a difficult day at work, or some who may have been suffering losses, and she single-handedly was able to change their mood and affect every single person there in a positive light. Although there are my talented singers in our midst, who all deserve accolades for their talents, Ms. Bartoli resides at the very height of them. Hers is a talent that will be documented for centuries as one of the truly technically precise, emotional, and devoted performers in history.

Mary-Lou Patricia Vetere, 2008