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Cecilia Bartoli at the Kennedy Center

Other Reviews:

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)
Most critics around the world, myself included, love Cecilia Bartoli's new CD, Opera Proibita (Cecilia Bartoli's New Disc, October 6). You can imagine my anticipation, therefore, of Wednesday night's concert in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, when La Bartoli herself appeared to sing a selection of Baroque arias, mostly from her new CD. Along with Renée Fleming's concert performance of Strauss's Daphne, this was one of the highlights of my fall, brought to the citizens of Washington by the always laudable Washington Performing Arts Society. The house was not sold out, and there were even large gaps in some sections, but Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were both there. Justice Scalia stayed through all four encores and could be seen cheering loudly, proud that evening, certainly, to be Italian-American. The nominee to join them on the bench, Harriet Miers, reportedly also loves opera (Sieglinde has a theory about that). I wondered why she was not there, too, but then the next morning, I learned where she was at 8:30 pm that night.

Additional Commentary by Jens F. Laurson:

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program that was essentially the recital she has recently recorded for Decca: “Opera Proibita,” a collection of largely unpublished castrato arias by Caldera and Scarlatti with some more familiar Handel thrown in.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.
Bartoli is making this tour largely to promote her CD. However, she is also, it appears, genuinely interested in bringing her celebrity to bear on the music of sometimes neglected composers, which is the sort of thing that makes music historians' hearts go pitter-pat. Somewhat sadly, she performed this live version not with the ensemble on the disc, Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble, conducted by the highly esteemed Marc Minkowski. Instead, she brought a very good group called Orchestra La Scintilla, musicians from the Zürich Opera Orchestra who specialize in early music, with whom she has worked before as well. In fact, if there is an implied contest in the program, between opera composers Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Antonio Caldara, I have to say that I was perhaps even more impressed by the mature Caldara than I was by the young Handel. Caldara was a formidable composer in the early 18th century, but the vast majority of his music is completely forgotten today.

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.


Anonymous said...

Should we trust the judgement of critic #1 - who is giddy about shaking the "incredible" performers hand and recommends to buy all her CDs or should we trust critic #2 who is bitter about not having gotten to shake her hand and says it is a tiresome CD?

Anonymous said...

Or should we trust the judgment of critic #3, a singer, who says that she personally (and probably many other colleauges in the singing world) would have an EXTRODINARILY difficult time sitting through one of La Bartoli's recitals "live" without seriously wondering at least once what La B. could do with that voice if she actually had learned proper technique and could channel all that energy (notice critic #2/Jens refrained from using the word "grimace") into even better vocal production?

(Those kinds of shenanigans would get singer #3 and 99.995 percent of the rest of us kicked out of our teacher's studio in a HEARTBEAT!)

At the same time, critic #3 is personally heading out right now to buy the CD because, despite grousing ... er... reservations over visuals/technique, La Bartoli has hit her stride and this is her repertoire and it is, in a word, *glorious*.

Princess Alpenrose said...

Ah yes, the rest of the world discovers Caldara and Scarlatti (for voice)! Caldara rocks, of course, and Cecelia Bartoli had Caldara on her previous CD "If you love me" (17th/ 18th century songs), released in 1992.

If Madame's memory serves (and it usually does), Madame studied those very self-same "obscure" art songs, which were available for study prior to 1992 on a Music Minus One *LP* for vocal students, in virtually the same order as on La Bartoli's CD...

Yes, indeed, here it is:

Madame simply adores these pieces (and feels a recital coming on ...)

Keep up the great work, gentlemen!

jfl said...

shocking to think that two critics might disagree (only slightly, if i may add!). better suspect non-objective motives behind that willful discrepancy. believe me: for those who were impressed but not ga-ga, shaking bartoli's hand would not have made the difference.


Charles T. Downey said...

Andrea, the musicological interest of the "Opera Proibita" CD lies in the fact that most of the Scarlatti and Caldara pieces on it were transcribed and edited by Bartoli's partner, a musicologist, because they are not available in modern editions. They are of much greater interest than the single Caldara song in the book you mention.

Anonymouses, I have expressed plenty of reservations about Bartoli's sound and mannerisms of production in my review of the CD. Whatever you may think, however, about her idiosyncracies, she is an electrifying live performer whose Roman grandness of spirit infects those with whom she performs and those who hear her.

Getting to shake her hand, which was a fluke, has nothing to do with my admiration for the performance.

Princess Alpenrose said...

Now that's really interesting, Charles, about the musicological angle of the new transcriptions and edition! Caldara (more than just the one on MMO) and Scarlatti have been long-time favorites of mine, and I like your favorite cut on this new one best, as well.

So I say bring it on! The more, the better.

Apropos of which, do you happen to know if La B. and her partner will be or already have published these as a collection?

Charles T. Downey said...

Andrea, I am not sure if editions of the arias are available or not. I'll look into it for you.

Princess Alpenrose said...

Oh, that would be wonderful, thank you!