Friday, October 07, 2005

Bartoli U.S. Tour: Opera proibita

Cecilia Bartoli and her boyfriend Claudio Osele spend many of their summers (or whatever free time the pair can scrap together) at various libraries, digging up obscure manuscripts of forgotten baroque music, which she can then bring back to life on stage. The latest batch of such discoveries is catalogued in her new CD, Opera proibita, which is also the core repertoire of her current North American tour.

Bartoli wore the emerald green version of this dress in Berkeley -- original photo by Robert Millard, LA Opera, 2004

I haven't heard the CD yet, though a generally reliable source tells me it is one of her very best recordings to date. But judging from her Berkeley performance last night at Zellerbach Hall, I have no reason to doubt the assertion, even though Cal Performances' Associate Director Hollis Ashby appeared just before curtain to make an announcement that Bartoli had been fighting a cold all week, and begged for our indulgence.

Having heard Bartoli live at least half a dozen times before, I could hear some this cold (only a few days earlier, it caused her to cancel her Toronto date) robbing her of a certain transparency in the upper register, but interestingly, in middle voice the cold seemed to accentuate the mellow dark quality of her chest tones, some times very pleasantly!

Yet, the most noteworthy element of this Bartoli outing was indeed the unusual repertoire she turned up. Joined by a 25 member chamber orchestra called La Scintilla (from Zurich), this was a remarkably generous and ferociously difficult program to be offered by a singer with a cold. The selections came from little known sacred works by Antonio Caldara, Alessandro Scarlatti and G.F. Handel (works composed during his youthful Italian years) -- arias alternating between melancholic laments, and explosive outbursts of coloratura writing, extracted from sensuous operatic writing disguised as pious oratorios, written in the early in the 18th century during the time when the Pope Clement XI banned public theatrical performances.

Overall, this latest occasion was not the most vocally remarkable performance I have heard from the Roman superdiva, yet unquestionably, there were still many superlative, once-in-a-lifetime moments to be savored. In selections such as Caldara's "Vanne pentita a piangere" and Handel's "Lascia la spina, cogli la rosa", Bartoli sang some of the softest, most quiet sounds a singer could make in a 2000-seat hall filled to capacity -- obviously, she has stopped making apologies for the small size of her voice. When she sang at her quietest, not a cough was heard in the audience; the stillness was both true and magical; the effect was breathtaking.

Of course, there were were generous heaps of coloratura in the bravura selections, where Bartoli still dazzles with her technical control -- facial contortions and all. Even with the alleged cold, her million-dollar tricks were in ample evidence: endless runs topped by the most florid ornamentation, arpeggiated sequences landing on perfectly executed mordenti, as well as interminably long notes capped by buttery grupetti.

Bartoli ended her Berkeley recital with three encores; Bononcini's "Ombra mai fu," [which Handel obviously plagiarized for his later, more famous version in Xerxes -- they have a lot of similarities]; Scarlatti's scena "Che dolce simpatico"; and the only famous entry of the evening, a rendition of Cleopatra's victorious final aria from Giulio Cesare, "Da tempesta in legno infranto" ornamented almost beyond recognition and without the minor mode middle section.

I couldn't find a dedicated website for her current tour. As far as I can tell, other cities and engagement dates include: Los Angeles, CA (Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Oct. 10); Urbana, IL (Krannert Center, Oct. 14); Chicago, IL (Orchestra Hall, Oct. 16); Toronto, ON (Roy Thomson Hall, Oct. 17); New York, NY (Carnegie Hall, Oct. 19); Boston, MA (Symphony Hall, Oct. 23); and Washington, DC (Kennedy Center, Oct. 26). If she happens to be coming your way, catch her if you can.

© 2005 C. Chang

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