Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Cecilia Bartoli @ Barbican Hall, London

17 December 2008

It’s December and that can only mean one thing: Cecilia Bartoli is on a recital tour.

Many of her previous Barbican appearances were motivated by CD promotion but this year’s concert of bel canto numbers, under the title Soire Rossiniana, seems to have been inspired by a benign spirit of generosity.

Adored the world over, except, she claims, in her native Italy, Bartoli’s mezzo is rich and earthy, especially in the middle register, and though characterised by a certain breathiness is capable of dazzling technical feats. Vocals aside, however, it is her on-stage charisma, all dramatic flourishes and Latin passion, that has fans flocking: Bartoli could sing the phone book and I suspect few would notice.

Soire Rossiniana wasn’t quite the phone book, but these songs by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti certainly highlighted a startling contrast to contemporaneous German lieder. Little existential angst here, in fact the majority of works were sweet nothings, often set to jaunty 3/4 time, written to be admired in a cosy nineteenth-century salon, the room thick with cigar smoke and a large glass of cognac in hand. Rossini’s La regata veneziana, a lusty triptych about a gondolier, set the tone of the evening.

Many of those that followed were characterised by quaint (if quasi) rural charm, with imitative bird warbling in Rossini’s Or che di fiori adorno and La farfalletta, a song by Bellini about a little butterfly that begins, irresistibly, “Farfaletta, aspetta, aspetta..” Tongue twisters were indeed a prominent theme. As the pace of Canzonetta spagnuola accelerated, Bartoli’s consonants remained razor sharp and were delivered with a waspish panache, but the overall effect was one of highly sophisticated yodelling.

Some of Bellini’s slower works had greater substance. While these songs lack the harmonic hook of his great operatic arias, they can share their spaciousness of line and lingering eroticism. L’Abbandono and Ma rendi pur contento were particularly exquisite and sensitivity sung. The evening ended with a nod to last year’s recording project of Maria Malibran repertoire with an onomatopoeic song about a drummer boy.

Throughout, Bartoli’s performance was never less than engaging, establishing a conversational, almost flirtatious, rapport with her accompanist Sergio Ciomei on the piano and with the audience.

Bartoli has a shrewd business mind, no question, and is exalted by her fans and publicity, but she also has the wit to be (or appear, at least) humbled by the attention: it was with graciousness and wide-eyed astonishment that she bowed to the demand for three encores.

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