No matter how dubious the chosen work may be, it is sure to have one undeniable virtue for the star — a leading role that encompasses all the singer’s vocal strengths.
Although her performances in staged operas have not been numerous in recent years, there’s no bigger star in classical singing than Cecilia Bartoli. The mezzo-soprano has shown, in a series of best-selling CDs, a comprehensive interest in baroque and early Classical composers, both well-known and lesser-known. In 2008 she brought to Opernhaus Zürich a long-forgotten work of Jacques Fromental Halévy, who is best known today for La Juive, a grand opera with a showcase role for a lead tenor (Neil Shicoff has been that work’s foremost proponent in recent years). Halévy’s Clari, to a libretto by Pietro Giannone, is a very different work — more Mozartean in musical language, and with a simple story that walks an uncomfortable line between comic underpinnings and deeper emotional currents.
The title character, before the stage action begins, has been induced to leave her farm family by an attractive Duke. She expects marriage, but he ensconces her at his home and presents her as his “cousin.” As Clari begins to doubt that she will ever be the Duke’s wife, she slips toward an emotional breakdown. Finally she flees to her home, where she fears her family will no longer accept her. Indeed, her father feels she has shamed the family, but when the Duke follows her to her home, realizing at last what she means to him, the expected happy ending makes its appearance.
Bartoli’s appealing stage manner does not extend to her being a convincing actress, and in the context of the cartoonish production of Moshe Lisher and Patrice Caurier, this staging doesn’t treat Clari’s emotional predicament with sensitivity or insight. Bright colors and broad gestures dominate, as if the creators fear that the audience will grow bored if asked to concentrate on the actual libretto and score. Indeed, Halévy’s music is Mozart-lite, with anodyne recitatives and superficially appealing but quickly forgettable melodies. Apparently, Bartoli herself did not have full confidence in the score, since at key moments she performs a Rossini aria from Otello and a cavatina from an entirely different obscure work of Halévy (La tempesta). Nonetheless, the show is a pleasant enough distraction. An act two chorus sung to an ailing Clari is a beautiful little piece, and an aria sung by a minor character (Bettina, performed by Eva Liebau) struck your reviewer as better than anything Clari gets to sing. The tenor lead, Il Duca, has a nice number or two. John Osborn takes a while to warm up, sounding a bit thin in his first number, with suspect intonation. Even warmed up his voice can’t be called beautiful, but he has real vocal agility and is a scrupulous musician. Unfortunately, as costumed by Agostino Cavalica, he looks less like a handsome libertine of a Duke than an overgrown pubescent boy. The shorts are truly unfortunate.
Adam Fischer and the La Scintilla band enjoy the unchallenging score, keeping things as interesting as possible with sharp rhythms and tight pacing.
Decca offers handsome packaging, although one can’t help but suspect the show is spread over two discs just to offer the set at a higher price point. The expansive booklet features a cartoon-panel version of the synopsis (parts of which also appear in the production as a clever bit of exposition), along with an essay on the opera, a note on the production, and a “Conversation with Cecilia Bartoli,” which is about as conversational as any document emanating from a public relation’s office.
Whether or not this production actually serves as the best representation of the opera Clari, it is very likely to be the only one available, indefinitely (if not infinitely). Bartoli’s vocal charms are on full display, and the show passes the time pleasantly enough.