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S & H Concert Review

Gluck, Vivaldi, Bononcini, Broschi: Cecilia Bartoli, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Barbican, Tuesday November 5th 2002. (ME)



What makes a great singer? Is it some indefinable quality which we can only reproduce verbally by such daft phrases as ‘Va – va – voom?’ Or is it possible to say what constitutes true greatness? I think it is: a great singer must unite a naturally beautiful voice to exceptional interpretative skills, finely honed technique, what has been called ‘fire, passion, poetry, in a word, temperament’ and genuine love for the music s/he sings, but all that is not enough, since there are many fine singers who possess these qualities –for me, a truly great singer must be able either to illuminate familiar music in such a way that one revisits it eagerly and with renewed love and understanding, or to introduce us to music which was hitherto obscure, and which lives anew in their performance. It will come as no surprise that this concert provided unquestionably great singing, in an evening almost entirely constructed from music that even those of us who love this florid eighteenth-century style would consider as less well known than the repertoire one hears more frequently.

The audience had come to hear Bartoli, and whilst they received the orchestral interludes respectfully (as well they might, considering that the OAE provided some brilliant playing, especially in Vivaldi’s D minor Concerto from ‘L’estro armonico.’) the attention was focused on this vibrant diva with her arresting mane of auburn hair and spectacular Vivienne Westwood gown. She did not disappoint, and the all-Vivaldi first group provided some of the most exciting, perfectly executed singing I have ever heard. ‘Gelosia’ from ‘Ottone in villa’ was a tour de force of dazzling coloratura and terrifyingly difficult descents through the scale, and it was brilliantly sung.

However, it was the more tender ‘Zeffiretti che sussurate’ and Broschi’s spectacular ‘Son qual nave ch’agitata’ which gave the most vivid demonstration of her remarkable skill. Her ornamentation is indeed fearless and wonderfully accurate, her person brimming over with the most endearing charm, but as with many great singers it is not in the dazzling passages where we hear her at her most remarkable, but in the softly phrased, exquisitely delicate, long – spun lines which ravish the ear by their seemingly never-ending beauty. Vivaldi wrote ‘Zeffiretti’ as a kind of ‘baggage ‘ aria, for a singer to carry around and display as a showcase of their skills, and it certainly worked for Bartoli; against a gossamer-delicate accompaniment which included an off-stage violin, she caressed the onomatopoeic phrases with exquisite grace, and her piano singing was a miracle of delicacy and subtlety.

Broschi’s aria was one of many written to display the vocal prowess of his more famous brother, ‘Farinelli,’ and Bartoli’s singing of it transported us at once to a world where sheer vocal display once made ladies swoon and men cheer, and if there is another singer around today who can emit the same quality of liquid tone whilst negotiating such perilous scale passages then I haven’t heard her, and I have certainly never heard such a ravishing messa di voce as she produced here.

The second half of the programme was all Gluck, and what sublime music it was; from a singer who could so easily indulge herself with easy display or vocal lollipops, it was wonderful to hear these little-known but highly dramatic pieces. ‘Berenice che fai’ was probably the one which most of us would be likely to know, and although I am familiar with it I have never before heard the arioso sung with such fervour, or the final aria with such superbly judged drama. The evening’s finest singing came in two of the more tender arias, ‘Se mai senti spirarti sul volto’ and the first encore, ‘Di questa Cetra in seno.’ The technical quality of the singing is stunning, the vocal pyrotechnics, right up to high D flats, are jaw – droppingly sensational, but these are still not what make such a singer truly remarkable; it is the range of colours which she brings to the words, and the infinitely musical phrasing, which distinguish these performances.

Both these arias displayed some of the most beautiful singing I have ever heard, the gentle melismas providing the kind of sheer delight which one experiences only rarely, the nuance of the phrasing so exquisitely shaped as to bring tears to the eyes, and I would not be surprised if I can still remember these performances thirty years from now, as I can the earliest operatic singing of which I have any valid memory, that being Domingo and Price in ‘Otello’ at Covent Garden. I would place Bartoli’s singing of ‘Quel chiaro rio’ and of ‘Di questa cetra’ on the same level as Domingo’s ‘Già della notte densa,’ her phrasing of certain lines having exactly the same emotional effect as his unforgettable ‘Vien quest’ immenso Amor.’ A wonderful evening which reminded us of the power of a great voice when it is allied to such musicianship as Ms Bartoli commands.


Melanie Eskenazi


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