Faustina Bordoni: Faces of a prima donna

the 18th century, the castrati were the most desired voice type and one might
initially think that there werenít any female singers of great caliber;
however one of the greatest female singers of her time was born in Venice in
1697 and lived there until 1781. Mezzo-soprano, Faustina Bordoni made her
operatic debut in 1716 in Carlo Francesco Pollaroloís Ariodante.
She became known as the ìnew siren,î and was commonly just recognized by
her first name, Faustina. This historical CD is a tribute to her and to the
works of Hasse and Handel.

Cleofide, was Johann Adolf Hasseís (1689-1783) first opera for
the Saxon court. It explores themes of jealousy and royalty, as well as the
position of women in kingdoms. The libretto to this work stems from
Metastasioís Alessandro nellíIndie and the title role of
Cleofide was one of Faustinaís most well-loved roles. Featured here is the
Sinfonia, and Qual tempesta díaffetti (recitativo) and
Son qual misera colomba (aria). The Sinfonia, opens with a
luscious Allegro di molto in which the Arion orchestra is
well-balanced between orchestral sections. The brilliance of the brass is
suggestive of the regal qualities of the opera. At this time it was not
mandatory for the overture/sinfonia to reflect the dramatic impetus of the
story, yet Hasse makes this quite appropriate. In the ensuing
Allegretto, we move to a lovely, lilting 6/8 with aesthetic
dedication to the up-lift required by this music. The clavicembalo performed
by Olivier Fortin elegantly plucks along the beat with a dance-like quality
and allows a well measured contrast to the opening Allegro. To end
the Sinfonia, an allegro assai with brass instituting a
rhythmic ostinato above cascading scalar passages in the violins. Some
wonderful moments of consequent and antecedent phrasing present themselves
within Arionís orchestral fabric.

The recitativo accompagnato from Acte II, Qual tempesta
opens with a strong rhythmic inflection in unison by the
orchestra leading to the vocal entrance. Barberís voice is round and her
inflections in this text are excited and sparkling. Her Italian is quite
impressive and her attention to the Baroque performance aesthetic is
profound. There is a lovely interlude that brings the recitativo into a
slower and more reflective mood; a true testament to Hasseís attention to
dramatic motion and tension. Barber merges swiftly between voce di
and voce di petto (head and chest voice) and her lower
tessitura is thrilling and creates refined dramatic colour in combination
with the orchestral fabric. The aria Son qual misera colomba opens
with a pleasant and melodic instrumental prelude. Barber spins out
coloratura in what seem like endless melismas of vocal pyrotechnics.
She manages to retain a beautiful and lyrical line even through the infusion
of notes. Her trills and especially the end of the second ìlibert‡î is
very impressive with quick passages of descending triads. The B section of
the ternary aria is well-contrasted by Barber from the excitement of the
first section. The supportive Arion orchestra is complimentary and provides
elegant and dramatic support when needed. They are never overpowering and let
the voice glimmer in its true and exciting element. The Da Capo is
thrillingly performed by Barber and the well-chosen seconds of chest voice at
the ends of certain coloratura passages are brilliant.

Excerpts from Handelís Admeto are offered, again beginning with
the Ouverture (Sinfonia) to Acte II, and to contrast the
excitement of the Hasse, we are introduced to a beautiful Largo.
Distinctive chords open this, from which stem cascades of ascending 16th note
scalar passages. There are lovely moments of drama in that attention is paid
to antecedent and consequent phrasing. An effective use of terraced dynamics
is approached aesthetically and the orchestra is well-balanced in its
presentation here. Following the Largo is an Allegro that
is more polyphonically constructed. The orchestra divides itself into
rhythmic support and two melodies occurring: one in the violins and another
in the oboe; a welcomed contrast to the previous Largo.

In ScËne I, we are introduced to the voice of Baritone, Jonathan Carle as
Ercole. His recitativo, In van ti scuoti, in vano is
elegant and his voice is lush and pleasant, however his Italian is marked by
too many aspirated consonances making it sound in-authentic. The language
sounds almost amateurish in comparison to Barberís meticulous attention to
diction. The recitative is followed by another Sinfonia that is
filled with beautiful running passages in the violins surrounded by suspended
falling seconds in the brass. The fagotto and traverso could be a tad louder
in the recording mix as they are often much imbedded within the texture.
Perhaps bringing these instruments further forward would give the orchestral
fabric a more colourful and poignant colour.

ScËne 7 is a recitative between Alceste and Ercole, A qual fine, o
. Again, Carleís Italian is problematic here and affects the
overall presentation of his lines. In a couple of entrances he even sounds a
little flat in his tone. Barber inflects her responses dramatically and uses
her voice effectively within the dramatic purpose of the text. The aria
Gelosia spietata Aletto opens with a rhythmic and exciting
orchestral introduction that is followed by a beautiful opening phrase by
Barber. The orchestra here doubles her scales with precise inflection. Again,
Barberís fioritura is thrilling and to be commended, especially
for her attention to historical performance practice. This aria expresses the
lovely acoustic of the recording and the Da capo brings some
absolutely luscious moments from Barber, especially by the contrast in her
pianissimo singing and the, all at once moments, of chest

Acte III, scËne 6 brings Alcesteís aria La dove gli occhi io
which opens with a lovely introduction with solo violin that
continues in responds to Barberís vocal statements. The clavicembalo
rhythmically defines the triumvirate of sound and this polyphonically
inspired aria becomes one of the memorable tracks on this CD; not for the
difficulty or intensity of the music, but for its inherent simplicity and
remarkably subtle moments of just complete musicality between this
collaboration of superb artists.

To contrast Handel, we return to Hasseís Cleofide and are
presented with the Sinfonia from Acte I, which begins with an
Allegro assai. The lower extremities of the orchestra are featured
here with oscillating 16th note passages in the violins. The juxtaposed
transition to minor for a momentary thrill is notable for Hasse. The brass is
well-balanced here but could have perhaps been a little poignant in its
contributions to this piece. The Andante that follows has lovely
drawn out baroque inflections and the clavicembalo is well-balanced with the
strings. Some of the inner orchestral sections could be a little more
projected here to take the pronounced treble to a more rounded medium.
Because this music tends to be melodically based the acoustic can tend to be
drowned by high resonances allowing the mids and lows to be lost.

The Sinfonia ends with a tri-part
Minuetto-Presto-Minuetto. The presto was well approached by Olivier
Fortin yet again the inner voices of the Minuetto could have been
slightly more pronounced, especially the corni. This was a lovely
introduction to Cleofideís aria Se mai turbo il tuo riposo, Barber
sings with a beautiful, lush tone and affective lyric phrases. She uses a
colourful palate of voice shades and in each phrase she uses a new and fresh
approach to her text, even in the Da Capi.

The CD returns to Handel with excerpts from the opera Riccardo
(1727). The Ouverture begins with a Largo in
regal dotted rhythms with doubled treble parts in the fagotto, oboe, and
traverso. Again, I would have liked this section to be more pronounced here,
as it tends to get lost in the acoustic. The following Allegro is
polyphonically based in a pseudo three-voice fuga. The orchestral sections
are well balanced and each entry is given appropriate attention. There is a
question/answer moment in which the fagotto and oboe are featured and is
quite lovely; making me want to hear these instruments even more clearly
within the aforementioned tracks.

Act II, scËne I opens with Pulcheriaís recitativo accompagnato, Ah,
padre! Ah, Cielo!
Barber eloquently approaches the text with precision
and dramatic inflection. Her aria, Quel gelsomino, che imperla il
which she opens with a light and fiery sound. Barberís mezzo is
like a kaleidoscope of colour. She can in one instance produce a bright
yellow shade and then at once descend into the deepest red. The true mark of
an artist who can use their voice technically and artistically within a
repertoire that is imbued with difficulty is one that can use those elements
to create drama and bring a character to life, even on a CD. Barber is such
an artist.

In ScËne IV, Pulcheriaís aria LíAquila altera conoscere i
is constructed of a strong running-bass foundation. The moving
bass is an elegant compliment to Pulcheriaís melody. Barber treats this
with grace and her attention to phrasing, even though, the coloratura is
noteworthy. The B Section shows her artistry as she employs some lovely
terraced effects and uses a lighter toned sound to contrast the fuller sound
of the previous section. Again, the Italian is well-enunciated and inflected
with pure legato through consonants and vowels. She never lets the text
affect the application of her phrasing and legato, but rather uses the latter
to express that text more fully and artistically.

The final excerpt is from Handelís Admeto (1727), and we are
treated to Alcesteís aria from Act I, scËne 3, Luci care, addio,
. Barber takes time with these phrases and the rests are, as is
sometimes forgotten, as important as sound. This aria, that in a way
resembles Cleopatraís VíAdoro Pupile (from Giulio Cesare), uses
periodic rests for dramatic purpose. There is a lovely section with the
traverso in duet with the voice that is moving and elegant. Barberís rich
mezzo is well-complimented by the higher tones of the obbligato.

This CD is a must have for any Handel aficionado, or anyone who is
interested in historical performance practice. The vocal performance of
Kimberly Barber is worth having, if just to listen to a singer who can
complete the difficult tasks of Handelís writing and make it beautiful. The
Arion orchestra is a competent and supportive group of musicians and the
ensemble is noteworthy.

Mary-Lou P. Vetere, 2007

image_description=Faustina Bordoni: Faces of a prima donna
product_title=Faustina Bordoni: Faces of a prima donna
product_by=Kimberly Barber, mezzo-soprano (Cleofide, Alceste, Pulcheria), Arion, orchestre baroque, Monica Huggett (director/violon baroque), with Jonathan Carle, baritone (Ercole)
product_id=CBC Records 1172 [CD]
price= $17.98