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The Bridgewater Hall International Concert Series - Cecilia Bartoli in Concert: Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo soprano), Basel Chamber Orchestra. Leader Jülia Schröder Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 3.12.2010 (RJF)



Nicola Porpora (1686 - 1768) Siface, Come Nave in mezzo all'onde.

Riccardo Broschi (1658 - 1756) Merope, Chi non sente al mio dolore.

George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759 Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Lascia la spina.

Leonardo Vinci (1690 - 1730) Medeo, Cervo in bosco se l’impiaga.

Leonardo Leo (1694 - 1744) Zenobia In Palmira, Qual farfalla.

Francesco Araia (1709 - 1770) Berenice, Cadrò, ma qual si mira.



Nicola Porpora (1686 - 1768) Siface, Usignolo sventurato.
Carl Heinrich Graun, Demofoonte, Misero pargoletto.

Antonio Caldara (c1671-1736) Le morte d’Abel, Quel buon pastor son io.

Leonardo Vinci (1690 - 1730) Alessandro nelle Indie, Quanto invidio la sorte del greche donzelle.

Nicola Porpora (1686 - 1768) Adelaie, Nobel onda.

In reviewing Cecilia Bartoli’s concert at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in May 2006, I reflected on what it might be that differentiates so many singer recitals with those few which conclude with enthusiastic standing ovations rather than simple admiration of the singing skills exhibited by the soloist. I ventured a tentative distinction between singers, often of considerable skill, and performers who bring barely identifiable plusses to such occasions, as was the case in 2006, and again with Cecilia Bartoli on this occasion. Yes, descriptions such as formidable and virtuosity can be used to describe what was heard, but I have been in many an opera or concert performance when those words have been applicable, but without stirring the emotions of the audience to raptures of enthusiasm as was the case at the Bridgewater Hall last night. It was like memorable concert occasions when hearing the likes of the lamented Joan Sutherland and the great tenor Gigli in one of his farewell concerts, and only Frank Sinatra did more, when the artist's command of his or her repertoire was total. In Dame Joan’s case this command was the consequence of much study with her husband, the conductor and bel canto musicologist Richard Bonynge, whilst in Gigli’s case it was his utter familiarity with the repertoire which he presented and was the product of forty years of performance. In Cecilia Bartoli’s case both study and familiarity of the music she is performing have a part to play. In the case of this concert, it is really a part of a sequence going back several years and which has borne notable recordings, on DVD and CD, of repertoire written for the great castrati of the eighteenth century. The latest recordings and recitals she has given have often carried the title Sacrificium. The Art of the Castrati; our tickets for the evening carried that imprimatur, whilst the extended programme essay described the social and artistic milieu that permitted the mutilation of young boys and its effect on their body development allowing them to sing across what is under normal circumstances the tonal domain of the female singer.

Cecilia Bartoli is thoroughly at home with her own formidable vocal capacity and skills. Her range is outstanding. At one end of that range I heard a couple of soprano high Cs last night whilst at the other were tones that I might normally expect to come from a male baritone. But that range alone does scant justice to her choice of repertoire for these concerts and the interpretative skills and realisation that she attains. Interpretation demands complete understanding of what the composer intends, not merely vocal display, important though that is to the context for which the music was written and performed. The decorated coloratura of Cecilia’s first piece, Come Nave in mezzo all'onde from Nicola Porpora’s Siface with her sensitive ornaments was typical. In contrast was the soft expressive, full phrased, undecorated, singing of Brochi’s elegiac Chi non sente al mio dolore with its requirement for the singer to go to a lower register whilst really expressing the agonies of the context. Emotion was also the name of the game in the extract from Handel with its requirement for sotto voce singing whilst maintaining a smooth legato on the breath. That was yet another one of the many considerable achievements with which Cecilia Bartoli delighted her audience. There was another that could easily have gone unnoticed and where she scores over many of her contemporaries as well as distinguished predecessors and that is clarity of diction. One does not expect to follow the words in florid coloratura decorations, but it is a particular, and not common, pleasure to hear them enunciated in other rapid vocal statements particularly when no amplification was in use.

I have criticised the unnecessary use of amplification by singers at the Bridgewater in recitals by the likes of Alfie Boe (see review) and Bryn Terfel (see review). - not merely because they have voices capable of filling the Hall with comfort, just as they do London’s Coliseum or New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but because it stops a proper appreciation of the patina of a singers voice. With Miss Bartoli there were no such problems. Of course in the cases mentioned the singers were on stage with an on orchestra of modern instruments behind them, whilst in the theatre the orchestra is below them in the pit making it easier to project. Cecilia faced no such problem by being accompanied by a period instrument ensemble of appropriate proportions. It was an ensemble of its own particular skills led by a physically and tonally vibrant leader in Julia Schröder. The instrumentalists made a number of contributions to their own, including the opening sinfonia from Porpora’s Meride e Selinunte and later the overture to his Germanico in Germania allowing Miss Bartoli to change costume, of which more anon. In these orchestral contributions it was interesting to enjoy the particular skills of woodwind and classical oboe as well as valveless horns and which were in evidence for the only piece which duplicated that heard in 2006, Lascia la spina from Handel’s Handel’s Oratorio of 1707 Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Victory of Time and Disillusionment) and with the horns, gut strings and woodwind prominent and vibrant.

In her 2006 concert Misss Bartoli gave her considerable skills to illustrating music composed for the castrati in Rome at the turn of the eighteenth century and where the Papal edict deprecating castration was ignored; in this concert most of the composers furnished the wishes of the Naples theatres. In independent Naples, the Papal edict held no sway at all under the Bourbon monarchy, composers such as Porpora met the dramatic demands of the monarchs whose only virtue was as lovers of music and opera in particular and whose support of the art form led to the building of the San Carlo, opened in 1737. The Neapolitan composer Porpora was featured in both halves of this concert. His writing in the works Siface and Adelaide make diverse demands on Miss Bartoli’s voice in respect of register, with the latter opera requiring her low mezzo range whilst the former, that opened each half of the concert, was about coloratura flexibility superbly realised. This was particularly so in the aria Usignolo sventurato that opened the second half and with the voice following the flutes in something of the manner famous in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lamermoor, premiered at the San Carlo in September 1835.

Illustrating the vocal skills of the great Neapolitan castrati was Cecilia Bartoli’s intent in this concert and consummately delivered. She also gave insights into theatre practice in the period by using various costumes that would be typical of the showmen castrati of the period. The may have lacked reproductive capability, but they certainly did not lack for fame, or at least those of them for whom the operation led to a later career on the lyric stage. Their distorted capon like stature and fame in the gossip columns of the day might be contrasted to that of certain of our contemporary celebrities whose physical features are enhanced by addition surgery and who flaunt their additions as a supplement to their assumed sexuality. The large majority of castrated boys never made it to fame and were discarded much as young footballers from contemporary club academies are today, but with no welfare stated poverty prostitution was their fate. By the time of the great Italian belcanto composers of the primo ottocento, the first half of the nineteenth century in Italy, the castrati were a dying out in the lyric theatre. Rossini only ever wrote one role for the voice type, that of Arsace in his twelfth opera Aureliano in Palmyra premiered at La Scala, Milan, in 1813 and written for the famous castrati Giovanni Battista Vellutti. The use of castrati on the lyric stage died out with the emancipation for the stage of the likes of Isabella Colbran and Maria Malibran whose vocal prowess and colourful lifestyles often mimicked those of the castrati they replaced, but with their sexuality undoubted as they went through husbands and lovers in some profusion.

This programme of a selection of the virtuosic writing for the castrati yet again allowed Miss Bartoli to illustrate her phenomenal range with open throated ease, including a perfectly controlled trill and thrilling embellishments, always at the service of the words and the varied intentions of composer’s music. Her body language, flashing eyes as well as the sheer vivacity and vitality of her singing draws in the audience and makes the totality of her performance an event to be remembered. In her second encore she sang the opening phrases on a formidably long breath that would have allowed even an average swimmer a length or two under water. It was simply another addition to her interpretative and vocal skills that few, if any, equal today.

For those that were present, or will be at the concerts to come at around the title Sacrificium, I suggest they buy the Decca DVD(000440 974 3966 6) in which Cecilia sings a variety of this music, including same heard in this concert. It is set in the wonderful UNESCO-listed Royal Palace of Caserta near Naples. The settings are superb and with the costumes as well as the singing being a permanent reminder of a superb evening.

Robert J Farr


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