Tim Page, Cecilia Bartoli's Heavenly Oratorio (Washington Post, October 28)
Richard Dyer, Cecilia Bartoli delivers irresistible arias (Boston Globe, October 24)
Anthony Tommasini, When Opera Was Forced Under the Radar (New York Times, October 21)
Joshua Kosman, Bartoli hits new heights, elevating audience as well (San Francisco Chronicle, October 8)
In a dress that others have variously described as “mouthwash-colored” or – more kindly – “emerald,” Cecilia Bartoli strutted onto the stage of the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall to a surprising number of empty seats. WPAS presented her in a program that was essentially the recital she has recently recorded for Decca: “Opera Proibita,” a collection of largely unpublished castrato arias by Caldera and Scarlatti with some more familiar Handel thrown in. In each instance, these are lovely – even splendid – works; in large quantity they are at least very impressive. The effect of all these arias in a row (on disc as well as in concert, although in the latter it was broken up by instrumental pieces by Corelli, Caldara, and Handel) is akin to watching a slide show of many very beautiful Renaissance (or Baroque, as it were) paintings in swift succession.
Cecilia Bartoli, a lyric soprano in the guise of a mezzo, stunned with the incredible agility of her voice, which the audience got to marvel at over and over again. Her touches were surprisingly soft in any number of arias, only for her voice to emerge fully exuberant in the next. Her support by the 23-some original instrument musicians of the Zurich band La Scintilla was always amiable and more, if not always, well… scintillating. One would have wished for Marc Minkowski’s Les Musiciens du Louvre to accompany her, although that band would then have had to hold back quite a bit in order not to drown Ms. Bartoli’s fair-sized voice.
Cecilia Bartoli’s expressions during the performance are – how to put this kindly… - most engaged, characteristic, and indicative of her consummate identification with the music she sings; music that seems to run through her veins. It may look corny at times, but it is also genuine and infectious. She shuddered, suffered, and delighted along with and in every note of the music, even those she did not sing. If you forgot your opera glasses at home, though, don’t be to hard on yourself.
The angelic-looking Baroque oboist Jasu Moisio surely had the hearts of a significant portion of the audience’s heart beat faster during his prominent part of Handel’s Lo sperai trovar nel vero, performed in duet with Ms. Bartoli. That he also had complete mastery of his fiendishly difficult instrument only added to the reception he received from the crowd.
Handel’s Disserratevi, o porte d’Averno concluded this dazzling evening – followed by rapturous applause as the audience leapt to its feet as one. Loving both, the music and the audience’s reaction, Cecilia Bartoli delighted with four encores.
If I had to pick a favorite aria from the CD, it would likely be Vanne pentita a piangere, Santa Eugenia's aria from Caldara's Il Trionfo dell'Innocenza. It has a beautiful ritornello, which had the most consistently beautiful sound from the orchestra the whole evening, and Bartoli thrilled with stunning pianissimo sounds. Saint Eugenia was, by legend, the daughter of the Roman ruler of Alexandria. As a virgin she dedicated herself to Christ and abhorred the thought of marriage. She fled her father's house, dressed as a man, entered an abbey as a monk, and by her virtue was appointed abbot. While she was in that guise, another woman fell in love with her, and this aria is, I believe, addressed by Saint Eugenia to her, refusing her advances and telling her to repent. Her feast day is December 25, which means that she was martyred on Christmas Day, and that is what tradition records, that she was beheaded on that day in 262. Her body was interred in the Apronianus cemetery on the Via Latina.
A close second was Caldo sangue, Ismaele's aria from Scarlatti's oratorio Sedecia, Re di Gerusalemme. The role of Ismael, son of Zedekiah, the last king of Jerusalem, was probably written for a castrato. Ismael sings this aria at the moment of his death, at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, who murders him to exact revenge on Zedekiah. (Although the Old Testament specifies that Zedekiah saw all of his sons killed, before he was himself blinded, the Book of Mormon has a story about one of Zedekiah's sons, Mulek, who managed to escape the execution. After Jerusalem was destroyed, he supposedly led a few followers all the way to North America.) As Ismael watches his blood trickle away, Bartoli and the orchestra literally faded, morendo al niente in the exquisite final ritornello. I also enjoyed Si piangete pupille dolenti, Francesca's aria from another of Caldara's 40-some oratorios, Santa Francesca Romana. Saint Francesca was a Roman married woman who lived in the 15th century -- she was not even canonized until 1608 -- and she was a remarkable example of charity. She directed her followers out of her home in Rome, the Tor de' Specchi, which became the motherhouse of her new order and still exists in Rome today.
Cecilia Bartoli met all of my expectations, and it was a special pleasure to get to shake her hand after this incredible performance. If you cannot experience this music live, at least do yourself a favor and go buy the CD. Caldara is worth discovering.