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Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo)
Il Giardino Armonico/Giovanni Antonini
rec. Emil Berliner Studios, Centro Cultural Miguel Delibes, Valladolid, Spain, 28-31 January, 1-3 February, 18-24 March 2009
Italian texts and German, English and French translations enclosed
DECCA 478 1521 Limited Edition [77:55 + 21:15]
Experience Classicsonline
CD 1
Nicola PORPORA (1686 – 1768)
Siface (1725)
1. Come nave in mezzo all’onde* [4:05]
Antonio CALDARA (1671 – 1736)
Sedecia (1732)
2. Profezie, di me diceste* [7:39]
Francesco ARAIA (1709 – 1770)
Berenice (1734)
3. Cadrò, ma qual si mira* [6:17]
Germanica in Germania (1732)
4. Parto, ti lascio, o cara* [10:49]
5. Usignolo sventurato* [5:12]
Carl Heinrich GRAUN (c.1703 – 1759)
Demofoonte (1746)
6. Misero pargoletto* [10:08]
Semiramide riconosciuta (1729)
7. In braccio a mille furie* [2:53]
Leonardo LEO (1694 – 1744)
Zenobia in Palmira (1725)
8. Qual farfalla* [5:30]
Adelaide (1723)
9. Nobil onda [4:56]
Carl Heinrich GRAUN
Adriano in Siria (1746)
10. Deh, tub el Dio d’amore … Ov’è il mio bene?* [3:43]
Leonardo VINCI (?1696 – 1730)
Farnace (1724)
11. Chi temea Giove regnante* [6:16]
La morte d’Abel figura di quella del nostro Redentore (1732)
12. Quel buon pastor son io* [10:26]
* World premiere recordings
CD 2
Three Legendary Castrato Arias
Riccardo BROSCHI (c. 1698 – 1756)
Artaserse (1734)
1. Son qual nave [7:32]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759)
Serse (1738)
2. Ombra mai fu [3:30]
Geminiano GIACOMELLI (c.1692 – 1740)
Merope (1734)
3. Sposa, non mi conosci [10:11]

Cecilia Bartoli is phenomenal – and has sustained her status over two decades. Her breakthrough came as a Rossini singer. She reaped laurels through a Rossini recital and the complete recording of Il barbiere di Siviglia under Patané, both issued in 1989. Mozart – a great Cherubino in Barenboim’s Le nozze di Figaro should be apostrophized – Haydn and a Handel opera followed suit. These came alongside a stream of recital discs. With the start of the new millennium, she changed direction and concentrated on rare repertoire, mostly from the 18th century. Since then her stage appearances have been few and far between. Her formidable technique, her enormous musicality and her deep involvement in whatever she approaches have continued to serve her superbly in her various assignments. She has impressed the general public and the musicologists admirably through her indefatigable hunt for worthwhile rarities. She has not shied away from concept projects – both in concert and on disc – and the result has been musically thrilling and historically perspective-building.
Her previous recital album, entitled Maria, was a tribute to the celebrated Maria Malibran, who was already a legend when she died, aged only 28. That album, issued in 2007, is a marvellous survey spanning the career of one of the real super stars in the world of opera. It included several world premiere recordings. In this her latest effort she goes even further in rarity value: 11 out of the 12 numbers on CD 1 are world premiere recordings!
The album title Sacrificium needs an explanation and Decca have supplied it with the subtitle: The Sacrifice of Hundred of Thousands of Boys in the Name of Music. The number of young boys who were castrated before their voices broke in the hope – primarily from greedy parents – that their offspring would become a brightly shining star. A few did. The question is: how happy they were in spite of the fortunes they reaped. The majority didn’t attain celebrity, and had to spend the rest of their lives in oblivion, maybe singing in church choirs. That was hardly compensation for their sufferings, physically and mentally.
It goes without saying that those who have been honoured by this album, belonged to the first category: those who were lucky to possess the talent required to command a career as a soloist. We know very little about what the great ones sounded like. The only ‘survivor’ into relatively recent times was Alessandro Moreschi. He recorded a handful of discs just after the turn of the last century but was no great singer. There are still moments on those records where he displays a sound that can serve as a distant echo of what ear-witnesses during the 18th century have described.
Cecilia Bartoli’s voice has nothing of that masculine quality that is inherent in Moreschi’s tone. That aspect can be traced in a male soprano like Jörg Waschinski, whose disc with Clara Schumann songs I reviewed a while ago. But this is probably the only thing that is missing. Breath-control, beauty of tone, brilliance and the amazing technical security that allows her to execute the devilishly taxing coloratura roulades – everything is there, paired with dramatic intensity. The disc should be in every vocal collection for these qualities alone and for the rarity of the music. Question is: what is the quality of the music?
Honestly, there is quite a lot of empty coloratura fireworks on display here. This element serves no other purpose than as a vehicle for bravura. While admiring Bartoli’s phenomenal ease and seemingly effortless lightness in producing these interminable excursions up into the blue, one can’t fend off the onset of boredom. Even so, there are several examples of dramatically effective writing and rhythmically exciting music, where the drive and forward movement from orchestra as well as soloist will arouse enthusiasm. The opening aria by Porpora brims over with ‘go’ – and emptiness, likewise Araia’s aria (tr. 3), where the orchestra advances like a hurricane. Porpora’s Nobil onda from Adelaide is another stunner where Bartoli also gets an opportunity to expose her enormous range. Leonardo Vinci’s Chi temea Giove regnante (tr. 11) opens with a thunder that recurs throughout the aria, and this seems to justify the coloratura aspect.
There are also several arias that have far more musical depth: Antonio Caldara’s, for example. The elegy from Sedecia (tr. 2) is touching, and Bartoli’s handling of the text is marvellous. The mild Abel’s aria (tr. 12) is similarly moving, and in both arias the singing has the same feeling and soulfulness that characterized Janet Baker during her heyday.
Carl Heinrich Graun, who died the same year as Handel, was regarded, together with Hasse, as the foremost German composer of Italian opera. At least his Montezuma has been performed in modern times – and recorded. Decca issued a highlights disc with Richard Bonynge and with Joan Sutherland as one of the soloists, some decades ago. Last year (2008) Johannes Goritzki made a complete recording. I have some excerpts from the Decca and have always thought that Graun’s music is almost on a level with Handel’s. Timante’s aria from Demofoonte (tr. 6) is an extremely fine and moving elegy that confirms the impression. Bartoli sings it with the utmost care for nuance. The other Graun aria, from Adriano in Siria to a Metastasio libretto (tr. 10) is also wonderful. Leonardo Leo’s Qual farfalla innamorata (tr. 8) is likewise a most beautiful inspiration.
So the empty fireworks are only one side of the coin. There is a lot of high quality music to delight the discriminating listener. On the bonus disc there are more delights. Of Riccardo Broschi’s six operas for London, Artaserse was the most successful. One good reason for this was the aria Son qual nave – or maybe even more the singing of it by the legendary Farinelli on his first appearance in London. Farinelli was a younger brother to Broschi. The aria is primarily a virtuoso showpiece but with some rivetingly beautiful passages as well.
Another famous castrato in London at about the same time was Caffarelli, who premiered the title role in Handel’s Serse (Xerxes) in 1738. The opera was no success, surviving only five performances, but this was hardly Caffarelli’s fault. And his opening aria – here bereft of its preceding recitative – has always been one of the composer’s most beloved arias, recorded by all kinds of singers, not least mezzo-sopranos. But has it ever been more beautifully sung than here?
Giacomelli’s Sposa, non mi conosci, was sung by both Farinelli and Caffarelli, but became world-famous in Vivaldi’s adaptation. It is beautiful but has a dramatic mid-section, where Cecilia Bartoli shows her expressivity, snarling like a lion.
The discs come in a deluxe edition in the shape of a hardback book, lavishly illustrated and with extensive notes. Among the illustrations there is a photograph from 1898 of the Papal Choir, where one of the singers is the afore-mentioned Alessando Moreschi.
This is certainly an indispensable issue!
Göran Forsling


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