Cecilia Bartoli at the Barbican Centre, London

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

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

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 Schrˆder 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

image_description=Cecilia Bartoli
product_title=Cecilia Bartoli at the Barbican Centre, London
product_by=Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano); Franco Fagioli (counter-tenor). Basel Chamber Orchestra. Wednesday 8th December 2010, Barbican Centre, London.
product_id=Above: Cecilia Bartoli