These days Cecilia Bartoli is as famous as a musical archaeologist as she is as a singer, and she has cornered the market for “concept” albums which she then performs. Her Maria Malibran album
seems positively mainstream when you put it alongside others like Sacrificium
which mined the archives for unknown works. This latest release is equally fine a discovery, containing as it does eleven world premiere recordings.
There is very important historical value in what Bartoli has brought to light here. She deals with the mid-eighteenth century period when opera came to Russia. She focuses in particular on the reigns of three extraordinary Tsaritsas who encouraged and promoted the culture of Italian opera at the St Petersburg court.
Under Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine, taking in a span from 1730 to 1796, Italian composers and performers were invited to the court to share their art form which had already caught on so widely elsewhere in Europe. It took off in Russia too, to the extent that the very first Russian language operas were composed for performance at court, decades before Glinka reinvented and nationalised the form in A Life for the Tsar
. Then, however, the music fell out of fashion and languished for more than two centuries in the archive of the Mariinsky theatre in St Petersburg. Bartoli has gained access and pulled together a selection that gives us a window into this unique flowering of one culture at the very heart of another.
The music Bartoli assembles is all very much in the opera seria
vein, but it is varied within that constraint. More often than not, the arias are gently beautiful, with lilting scenes of lament or pastoral bliss. However, there are also storming arias of rage, heroism or frustration. I particularly enjoyed the arias from Manfredini’s Carlo Magno
. Non turbar que' vagi rai
I found particularly appealing, a beautifully flowing melody, full of expression and tenderness. The Cimarosa aria is also very appealing with lots of distinctive instrumental colour and plenty of opportunities for Bartoli to show off her technique at both its most virtuosic and expressive.
Throughout the disc Bartoli demonstrates her typically chameleonic talent for bringing a huge range of moods to light in the space of one recital. She is persuasively beautiful in the slow, lilting numbers, particularly those by Araia, but exhilarating in the rapid-fire coloratura, and when she gets going there are few who beat her. She is thrilling in the aria from Raupach’s Siroe
, for example, but even more impressive in the arias, like Manfredini’s Fra' lacci tu mi credi
, which require a change of mood, from gentle resignation to rage, or something else along those lines. At times she can be prone to the odd touch of a shriek at the top, but those aspects are extremely limited in this album. She uses the intensity of her voice - something accentuated by the recording - to striking effect, with all the zeal of an evangelist for her new discoveries. I'm no expert but her Russian sounded perfectly fine to me, albeit that its quick-fire consonants on one occasion made it rather difficult to distinguish. Still, who cares when the results are so interesting?
The orchestral sound from I Barocchisti is beautifully expressive throughout, plangent and supportive in Vado a morir
, but with thrilling passagework and storming brass in Raupach’s Razverzi pyos gortani
, to give but two highly contrasting examples. The obbligato flute in De miei Figli
and Non turbar que' vagi rai
is expertly and very distinctively played, as is the oboe in Pastor che a notte ombrosa
. The chorus also show up for the final number which, no doubt intentionally, could well have served as a hymn to the Tsarina herself.
The packaging is up to Bartoli’s usual exceptionally high standards. The edition I got my hands on was packaged in a luxury hardback booklet (c. 120 pages) containing sung texts and translations, as well as three historical essays, some fun facts about the Russian court, and luxury illustrations, including some stylish photographs of Bartoli herself. This disc is highly interesting both musically and historically, and deserves to be sought out by the curious and discerning listener.