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Cecilia Bartoli in Manchester: ‘Opera Proibita’ Music in Rome at the turn of the 18th century. Arias and instrumental music by Handel, Scarlatti, Caldara and Corelli. Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo), Freiburger Barockorchester, The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. 24.05 2006 (RJF)

It may be a simplification, but as a rule recitals are given by people seeking to illuminate some aspect of a composer’s life or composers work. Performers on the other hand, seek to convey more of the impact that a composer’s work might have had at the time of composition. Just occasionally though, when an artist is so at home with their personal skills and with what they are doing, a recital combines both elements and becomes a memorable event.

In this concert Cecilia Bartoli, Roman by birth, chose the title Opera Proibita as appropriate for music composed for her home city at the turn of the 18th century. At that period, the Catholic Church, ever seeking to control the emotions of the populace, used the excuse of escape from the ravages of an earthquake to ban the popular staged performances of opera for five years as an act of thanksgiving. As a result, oratorios of ever more dramatic content became the substitute and while never staged as operas, the emotions conveyed in them were clear to the audience. The castrati of the time and other singers could give vent to singing with ornamentation and coloratura to their hearts content, without fear of condemnation.

Cecilia Bartoli’s intent at this concert was to give full rein to the skills exhibited by the great Roma castrati at the turn of the 18th century . Not only has she all the vocal skills to do so, but also, through the manner of her performance, communicates with the audience so well in music that most will never have heard before, as to involve them fully. The content is associated with ‘La Bartoli’s’ latest album for Decca, also called Opera Proibita which originated from cancelled performances of Haydn’s Armida when Harnoncourt had to pull out.

Bartoli replaced the cancelled opera with performances of Handel’s oratorio from 1707, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Victory of Time and Disillusionment) and two extracts from this work, one in each half, were included in this concert. Before approaching the first extract from Handel’s vocally demanding work Bartoli warmed up, if the vocal demands can be described that way with the opening recit and aria Qui rest….L’alta Roma, from Alessandro Scarlatti’s San Filipo Neri, followed by an aria by Alessandro Caldara. The opening recit and floridly decorated aria showed Bartoli in pristine vocal state with her creamy and rich middle mezzo register to the fore. Her diction in the recit was exemplary, as it was in all appropriate places throughout the evening, and made following the translations in the programme easy. The Caldara excerpt was more polyphonic; it extended Bartoli over an extreme vocal range that she surmounted with open throated ease, including a perfectly controlled trill. But with this singer, it is not only the ease with which she fires of embellishments that impresses: her body language, flashing eyes and the sheer vivacity of her singing draws the audience into the music and makes the totality of her performance a truly memorable event.

The extracts from Handel’s Il trionfo, started with the overture played by Freiburger Barockorchester led by Petra Mülleans. I do not often see a genuine baroque orchestra playing on original instruments and I was captivated by their animation. How hard they work to make their instruments sing. The group was a perfect support throughout the evening to the leading lady. In this Handel, baroque trumpets joined the ensemble and their tangy sound was a perfect framework for Bartoli’s highly decorated middle aria and the slower more contemplative Lascia la spina where her vocal colouring was a joy to hear. With her hands fluttering along with the orchestral playing, she and the orchestra enjoyed this music as much as the audience.

In the second half of the concert Bartoli sang in duo with the oboe. At the end, even if the audience only knew a little more of the composers involved, they clearly identified with the genre and artists, and also with the singer and orchestra involved in the presentation. Of course there were encores, four in number and mainly of music by Handel. By the finish, those in a packed Bridgewater Hall who were able were on their feet, reluctant to see such a scintillating and captivating event as this performance over. Everyone left exhilarated by a memorable evening that, for most people, took them into the musically unknown. For this, Cecilia Bartoli’s personality as a performer, and her consummate singing skills, was the essential vital component.

Robert J Farr




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)