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The State of Things

Symphony Hall
02/27/2004 -  
Opera arias and orchestral works by Vivaldi, Gluck and Salieri

Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Alison Bury (leader)

Cecilia Bartoliís appearances in North America have been extremely rare these past few years, and we must be thankful to the FleetBoston Celebrity Series for bringing her back to Symphony Hall last week. Here she was, concluding a triomphal eight-city tour of the USA in the magnificent setting of the Boston Symphony Orchestraís home, accompanied by British period ensemble The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Much has been said lately about Bartoliís overall vocal and artitstic condition, and not always in a very positive or complimentary manner. To this listener, she still appears as a unique phenomenon, capable of giving in a single evening of music-making her absolute best (and show why we love her so much) and her absolute worst (and show why some of her most fervent admirers, among whom I count myself, are somehow worried). As for the latter, here are a few specific concerns that canít be, in any case, overlooked.

It makes no doubt that she can deliver the most difficult music in a most heroic, almost super-human way, but it was clear, even from the first bars of the Vivaldi aria she sang as a concert-opener, that today the sound she manages to produce in florid passagi, especially in the middle register, is most often less than beautiful. This was most notably obvious in an excerpt from Salieriís La fiera di Venezia, where despite the sheer quality of the music, her tricky staccato coloratura, her surprising handling of tempo and, most sadly, a tendency to erratic phrasing seemed to blow away any dramatic or interpretative insight. At many other places during the concert she moved tempo forward at what seemed to be an unprecedented speed, causing many slight timelags between her and the orchestra, despite all the good will of solo violin Alison Bury. In a way, this remained impressive as a supplementary proof of Bartoliís technical capacities, but here again didnít highlight any kind of particular interpretative intention (or care for beautiful sound production). Most tellingly, the showstopping arias included in the official program elicited only polite applause (this being Cecilia Bartoli, after all).

To this listener, the best moments came in the more reflective, introspective scenes from Salieriís Armida, La scuola deí gelosi and Palmira, regina di Persia, and I would dare to highlight them as moments of pure gloden-age singing, despite an unmissable physical (and at times vocal) tendency to overstatement. Superb long-held, pear-shaped high notes, endless breath, ethereal pianissimi, deep expressive display, here she definitely showed what a mature and accomplished performer (and woman) she is. Might I only state that itís a shame she doesnít very much use her low register anymore, since it has gained an absolutely full-bodied, even rock-solid quality, and has today an extraordinarily poignant darkness it didnít have before. On the other hand, her rendition of comic arias (one given as second encore) proved to be real masterworks of buffa characterization, showing the more twinkling side of her personality.

And in any case, the most striking paradox was yet to come. Two highly virtuosic arias, one from La finta scema (not included on her best-selling Decca Salieri CD) and one given as first encore, taken from Haydnís obscure Orfeo, proved that when she really wants to give it everything she has, she is undoubtebly marvelous. Here she was so charmingly elegant, stylish, handling the runs with extarordinary gusto, perfect musical phrasing, clear dramatic intention, breathtaking virtuosity, giving every hemidemisemiquaver the exact dynamic shaping it deserved, endless streams of coloratura coming out of her throat like magical pearl garlands, having the entire audience jump to their feet (this reviewer included), all of this (her absolute best) making her probably unique today. And if there was to be one, unquestionable winner in this concert, it definitely had to be Antonio Salieri. Not only underlining his assets as an opera composer, the program showed, through the orchestral pieces it contained (mostly operatic overtures), what a strong influence Salieri was for Mozart, and even, in some way, for Beethoven. Itís a shame his music has been almost entirely neglected for the past two centuries, and Bartoliís discovery sounds, to me, highly interesting.

On the whole, the Bartoli case remains unsolved, at least to my own ears (and mind). Might I , very humbly, suggest eventual paths to be considered for the future by this highly treasurable artist : stop and take time to really listen to herself, and most important, try to pursue on a permanent basis (despite sometimes complicated international schedule planning) collaboration with world-class conductors like Harnoncourt, Rattle, Minkowski, Chailly, with whom she works (or used to work) only from time to time.

Renaud Loranger



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