Friday, June 10, 2011


June 9

A rare mix of style, intelligence and taste.

Famous singers come to Prague all the time, and there was certainly no shortage of big names in the just-concluded Prague Spring festival. But none of them inspire the adulation that Cecilia Bartoli does. From the moment she starts singing, it’s clear that along with a special voice, she has a unique performance style that creates a powerful bond with her audience, generating the kind of rapturous reception she received last night.

Bartoli was in town with Jean-Christophe Spinosi and his Ensemble Matheus for a two-part Vivaldi program. In the first half, she reprised favorites mostly from her 1999 release The Vivaldi Album; in the second half, she and Spinosi dusted off more forgotten Vivaldi arias from operas like La Silva, Catone in Utica and Argippo, which premiered in Prague in 1730. The new material is still so fresh that Bartoli sang it from scores.

Even with her voice well-known from CDs and performances on DVD, it’s breathtaking to hear her live. The sound quality is immediately captivating, but Bartoli’s range, fluency and command are what sets her apart. The very idea of a coloratura mezzo seems implausible...until you hear her sing “Tra le follie...Siam navi all’onde algenti” from L’Olimpiade, reeling off an extended run of coloratura lines with warmth and precision and not the slightest hint of strain. She can drop an absurdly low note one moment and be at high C a few bars later without any break or pause, smooth as satin.

Dramatic, delicate, full, graceful, round, sharp – Bartoli’s stylistic repertoire is stunning, and it all sounds perfectly natural.

Emotionally, she can hold an entire hall enthralled, caressing tender, achingly beautiful melodies in selections like “Sposa, son disprezzata” (from Bajazet), or “Zeffiretti che sussurate” (opera unknown), in which she trades enchanting lines with a solo flute. A passionate performer, she fully inhabits the pieces. A touching rendition of “Gelido in ogni vena” (from Farnace) brought instantaneous cheers and applause, which took Bartoli 10 or 15 seconds to hear and acknowledge, as she slowly came out of character. But she knows how to have fun, too; a spirited high-speed run through “Anch’il mar par che sommerga” (from Bajazet) ended with Bartoli and Spinosi laughing and hugging as the audience basked in the sheer energy and enjoyment radiating from the stage.

Bartoli has done a brilliant job of claiming a forgotten oeuvre as her own, and the electric quality of the first half of the concert made all the Italian opera written after Vivaldi sound tedious. But that energy didn’t quite transfer to the second half, which sounded a lot like the familiar Vivaldi of concerto fame. In fact, there was at least one direct quote from The Four Seasons in the new material, which included an orchestral sinfonia and a concerto for two violins. 

There was no drop-off in the caliber of the performance – Bartoli showed great range and sensitivity across six arias, finishing with a high-pitched dramatic flourish in “Se lento ancora il fulmine” (from Argippo). But with much of the vocals in standard mezzo range and the music more predictable (to modern ears, anyway), the thrill of discovery was gone.

The French half of the dream team.
Ensemble Matheus was first-rate, a very good Baroque orchestra with unusually rich, full dynamics. Some groups sound anemic on period instruments, but this one manages to preserve a deep timbre without losing any of the silken effervescence of the strings. Spinosi favors a bright gloss and buoyant – almost bubbly – tempo that propels the pieces and is a good match for Bartoli’s style and approach. That bright tone doesn’t always work; on dramatic pieces like “Gelido in ogni vena,” the ensemble sounded emotionally out of synch with the darker colors in Bartoli’s persona and voice. Otherwise, this is a collaboration that lives up to its billing as the “Vivaldi Dream Team.”

And Bartoli is a generous performer, happily sharing the spotlight with soloists (on flute, oboe, violin and trumpet last night) and reaching out to the audience, physically and emotionally. Her enthusiasm for the material is infectious, and her open, enthusiastic manner puts an inviting and accessible patina on some very intelligent, sophisticated work. None of these elements are uncommon. But to see them all together in one package is remarkable. No one can be that talented and smart and elegant and down-to-earth, all at the same time

Until you see Cecilia.

For more on Ensemble Matheus (in French and English):

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