11 Dec 2010
Cecilia Bartoli at the Barbican Centre, London
Cecilia Bartoli is something of a phenomenon, capable of attracting an enthusiastic capacity crowd.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
Cecilia Bartoli is something of a phenomenon, capable of attracting an enthusiastic capacity crowd.
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.