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Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano): Opera Proibita
Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)

Cantata per la Notte del Santissimo Natale: All’arme sì accesi guerrieri - Aria della Pace [02:38], Il Giardino di Rose (Oratorio La Santissima Vergine del Rosario): Mentre io godo in dolce oblio – Aria della Speranza [04:48]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)

Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno: Un pensiero nemico di pace – Aria della Bellezza [03:55]
Antonio CALDARA (c.1670-1736)

Il Trionfo dell’Innocenza: Vanne pentita e piangere – Aria di Santa Eugenia [08:46], La Casitità al Cimento (Il Trionfo della Castità): Sparga il senso lascivo veleno – Aria di Flavia [02:58]

Sedicia, Re di Gerusalemme: Caldo sangue – Aria di Ismaele [05:26]

Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno: Come nembo che fugge col vento – Aria del Piacere [05:10]

Il Giardino di Rose (Oratorio La Santissima Vergine del Rosario): Ecco negl’orti tuoi … che dolce simpatia – Recitativo ed aria della Carità [02:14], San Filippo Neri: Qui resta … L’alta Roma - Recitativo ed aria della Carità [04:12]

Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno: Lascia la spina, cogli la rosa – Aria del Piacere [05:53]

Sedicia, Re di Gerusalemme: Ahi! Qual cordoglio … Doppio affetto – Recitativo ed aria di Ismaele [02:31]

Oratorio per Santa Francesca Romana – Si piangete pupille dolente – Aria di Santa Francesca [07:35], Il Martirio di Santa Caterina: Ahi quanto cieca … come foco alla sua sfera – Recitativo ed aria dell’Imperatrice Faustina [03:04]

Oratorio per la Resurrezione di Nostro Signor Gesù Cristo: Disserratevi, o porte d’Averno – Aria dell’Angelo [04:41], Notte funesta … Ferma l’ali – Recitativo ed aria di Santa Maria Maddalena [07:30]
Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano)
Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble/Mark Minkowski
rec. 27-29 Aug 2004, 11, 16-22 Feb 2005, Salle Wagram and Eglise du Liban, Paris
DECCA 475 6924 [72:05]
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This is another of those "total products" that comes in the form of a neatly-bound booklet of sixty pages with a CD slipped into the back cover, apparently as an afterthought. A cover picture of Cecilia Bartoli in a sexy position with a dangerously low hemline, against the dimly writhing background of what looks like a digitalized waterfall (later revealed to be a still from Fellini’s film "La Dolce Vita") and ‘OPERA PROIBITA’ stamped across it in red letters would seem to promise a sleazy hour or so of arias from operas so salacious that they can never be performed. Inside the cover a double-page spread of Rome at its most decadent (this one’s a still from Rossellini’s "Roma, città aperta"), with another ‘OPERA PROIBITA’ red stamp across it, narrows the field geographically while raising expectations to the boil. Yet another page and there is Bartoli again, cavorting under her watery background, but then we have the title page and the track-list and the secret’s out – it’s a disc of arias from early 18th century Roman oratorios by Handel (who made a stop there in the 1700s), Alessandro Scarlatti and Caldara.

A con? The equivalent of a vicar putting a pin-up outside his church to pull in the crowds for his sermon?

Not a bit of it. There’s a serious point to it all which is explained as you read on. In the first decade of the 18th Century the Roman Catholic Church, even today a heavy presence in Rome, forbade (for reasons explained fully in Claudio Osele’s essay) all public performances except those held in Church institutions. In short, the Italian genius for opera had to make do with oratorio. But the curious thing is that, instead of buckling down to penitential fugues and the like, the composers and their librettists went out of their way to find ostensibly religious subjects with operatic or even erotic undertones.

However, Osele takes the argument a stage further. Don’t stop turning the pages of the booklet when the translations into French, German and Italian start, for the images of Bartoli cavorting under her waterspout mingle thick and fast with others from "La Dolce Vita" – and don’t miss Bartoli dolled up for the Anita Ekberg role and superimposed on a still of St. Peter’s Square. The point is, he explains, that there are certain parallels with Roman life in 1700-1710, when secret libertinism flourished under the mask of religious sobriety, and the Roman society portrayed in Fellini’s surreal masterpiece when, following the death of Pope Pius XII in 1957, a relaxation in attitudes to the city’s nightlife brought into the open the erotic tensions which had been seething beneath.

Having worked our way through to the disc itself, does it match the expectations thus aroused? Well, baroque music is obviously never going to sound like Scriabin and Handel wears his usual air of manly vigour (or so his music sounds today’s ears). However, the fact that the aria "Lascia la spina" proves to be an early version of "Lascia che pianga" from Rinaldo (i.e. an opera) suggests that in his own mind that inveterate self-borrower rated his Roman oratorios as operas in disguise. The Handel pieces are uniformly very fine, but those by Alessandro Scarlatti prove no less so, and here his use of the orchestra, and the treble recorder in particular, bears out Osele’s thesis in effects that range from the shimmeringly sensual to the joys of the country dance. Not even Bartoli can quite persuade us that Caldara’s music is a little more ordinary than that of the other two.

Which brings us to the performances. Having had an unhappy experience with a recent baroque disc by another much esteemed mezzo (von Otter) and having complained at times that Bartoli’s vibrato and her trill seem interchangeable and immoderately applied, I can only say she has either overhauled her approach to singing or at any rate straightened out her vibrato in the interests of a good baroque style. Her tone is everywhere firm and supple, with neither an excess of vibrato nor that "choirboy" straightness which some singers apply to early music. Unchanged is her ability to deliver the agile passages with astonishing clarity and accuracy, as is the range of expression and sheer gut conviction she brings to everything she does. Some of the "da capo" arias are decorated in a manner which calls for, and gets, the sort of stunning virtuosity which alone can make them credible. There are still traces of that eager-girl breathiness which is another sticking point with her detractors, but much less than of old and always kept well in hand. In short, Bartoli has done it again: an interesting project (only the Handel arias are not first recordings) brought to life with a capacity for self-renewal. Neither in her repertoire nor in her singing has she been content to stand still, much less to fall back on self-parody. In an age well-endowed with mezzo-sopranos she still stands out as a phenomenon. Amid all the death-knells for the classical record industry that are being sounded, it’s heartening that a major artist, rather than lapse into crossovers and the like, is willing to produce a record like this.

Christopher Howell



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