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Cecilia Bartoli
11 Dec 2010

Cecilia Bartoli at the Barbican Centre, London

Cecilia Bartoli is something of a phenomenon, capable of attracting an enthusiastic capacity crowd.

Cecilia Bartoli at the Barbican Centre, London

Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano); Franco Fagioli (counter-tenor). Basel Chamber Orchestra. Wednesday 8th December 2010, Barbican Centre, London.

Above: Cecilia Bartoli


You sense that many people would be happy to listen to her whatever the repertoire. So, it was heartening to find that for her Barbican Centre concert, Bartoli devoted so much time and care to Handel’s operatic output and generating such enthusiasm for material which can still be regarded as specialist.

After exploring the life and work of Maria Malibran and the music written in Italy for the castrati, Cecilia Bartoli was back on more familiar territory at her concert at the Barbican Centre, London on Wednesday 8th December. She sang a sequence of arias from Handel’s Italian operas including substantial extracts from Giulio Cesare with Argentinian counter-tenor Franco Fagioli, accompanied by the Basel Chamber Orchestra.

Handel’s major operas were written for some of the greatest singers of the day; great talents can articulate the drama within music and present the emotion behind the showers of notes. Technically Bartoli is amazing, if idiosyncratic, but her greatest strength is neither as a technician nor as a stylist (thought she is strong in both these areas). Where she excels is in telling a story and drawing the listener in.

When not singing her stage manner was a little too winsome for my taste. But when the music started she was transformed. Rarely have I been at a recital where each aria was so strongly presented with its own character. For the opening sequence, the overture and two of Armida’s arias from Rinaldo she was transformed into the sorceress, her musical gestures matched by flashing eyes and dramatic arm movements.

This drama was then contrasted with a light bright aria from Lotario, a charming simile aria where Handel’s plays with the text (about a little boat in the breeze on the ocean) by adding running passages in the music.

The orchestra then played the Allegro from Veracini’s Overture No. 6 in G minor. Veracini was a violinist, contemporary of Handel, who came to London and had some success with his concerts. He also ventured into the operatic sphere, with less success, though his operatic version of As You Like It sounds intriguing.

Bartoli then returned with “Ah! Mio cor” from Alcina, sung with great power but also a strong sense of line. In this aria, Bartoli presented Alcina as a quicksilver, captivating woman and you wanted to hear more of her in the role. Her mercurial take on the aria was in fascinating contrast to Inga Kalna’s account of it at the recent complete performance of Alcina at the Barbican.

The orchestra then played two short overtures by Porpora, another contemporary and rival of Handel’s. Both from cantatas written late in his career after he had left London. Full of dramatic contrasts and striking orchestrations, they seemed effective preludes rather then works in their own right.

In “M’adora l’idol mio” from Teseo, Bartoli was paired brilliantly with solo oboe, the pair creating a sparkling duet partnership in the complex passage-work in the aria. Whilst it would be fascinating to hear Bartoli as the sorceress Medea from this opera, her account of this aria for the opera’s heroine Agilea was everything that it should be. But she turned to another evil sorceress, Melissa from Amadigi di Gaula for the closing item in part one, “Destero dall’empia Dite” in which Melissa threatens to raise every fury from hell, with the help of solo oboe and trumpet. Another bravura showpiece which Bartoli turned into a mini drama.

Both this and the preceding item were performed with recitative .I think this makes all the difference to a baroque aria and could have wished that Bartoli had included more; she is after all Italian and her was with the words is vivid.

Bartoli’s Cleopatra, a role which she has sung on stage, was richly coloured and fascinatingly varied, giving us a tantalising glimpse of what her performance of the full role might be like. “V’adoro pupille” was erotic but aristocratic, though it was a shame that the accompaniment lacked Handel’s full orchestration here. “Se pieta” was perfectly judged, showcasing Bartoli’s marvellous way with line, musical and dramatically involving. Finally “Da tempeste” was all that you could imagine, brilliant, charming and vivid.

Fagioli’s Cesare was not quite yet in the same league. He has an attractive, high counter-tenor voice with a strong vibrato and quite a feminine cast. His voice lacks the edge which some counter-tenors have and this was something that I missed in this music. “Va tacito” was superbly sung with fine solo horn playing, but lacked that element of danger which needs to underlay the music. His voice seemed too soft grained for the dramatics of “Al lamp dell’armi” but he did interpolate some superb high notes in the da capo. But the lyric beauty of “Aure, deh, per pieta” suited his voice perfectly. Finally Bartoli and Fagioli joined a lively performance of Cesare and Cleopatra’s duet from the opera.

This was a long and generous programme with Bartoli singing 8 substantial arias plus duet. In response to the enthusiasm of the audience at the end we were treated to 3 encores, one from each singer and a duet from Rinaldo.

Bartoli’s choice of arias seemed to highlight two particular ways she has of performing baroque music. Lyrical music was sung with gloriously long lines, floated beautifully and emphasising high quietness. There were moments which reminded me of Caballe’s habit of opening recitals by singing a group of arie antiche with the music placed high in the voice and floated in a glorious pianissimo. There was something of this showing off in the way Bartoli placed many of the high lying passages. In contrast passage-work was sung in her distinctive, robust manner. This is something you either love or hate, the way that her intense, vibrato laden voice moves round the running passages at high speed creating a remarkable, and distinctive effect. I must confess that on disc I have found this sometimes rather difficult to take, but that heard live the effect was less disturbing and I could relax and appreciate the artistry that was going into the performance.

The Basel Chamber Orchestra, leader Julia Schröder performed without conductor, a nice sized group with 18 string players. From the first notes of the overture to Rinaldo they gave the music a fresh, crisp, newly minted feel. All the solo instrumental parts were superbly played and we even got a wind machine in the opening aria. The group were far more than just support and made themselves fine partners in Bartoli’s performances.

Bartoli held the audience spellbound for this long programme of baroque arias, something not every singer could do. All I wish for now is that we could hear her in a complete opera.

Robert Hugill

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