What happens when you ban opera
Opera Proibita: Rome at the turn of the 18th century. Arias and instrumental music by Handel, Scarlatti, Caldara and Corelli
Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano), Basel Chamber Orchestra
The cover of Cecilia Bartoli's most recent album, Opera Proibita, suggests that it contains opera that was so racy it was banned. The title actually refers to the general prohibition of opera in Rome at the start of the eighteenth century, and the album, and this programme, consists of arias from putatively, and often genuinely, religious works that filled the gap, at least for the cardinals and princes who could afford house composers like Handel and Caldara. There is an instructive contrast with Renée Fleming's competing album, Sacred Songs, whose cover suggests the sanctimonious prurience of Thais at the oasis and which contains mainly lollipops. There is indeed also a strand of prurience, masochism even, in the martyr narratives and moralities that characterize the oratorios commissioned by the Roman princes of the church. But these works are based on the intellectual and aesthetic high ground of the counter-reformation, which knew what it was doing when it used emotion and beauty to reclaim hearts and minds from the passionate simplicities of the Protestant reformers.
This programme was ingeniously constructed to present a rich portrait of the time and place. It began with Scarlatti's praise of the history and destiny of Rome, sung by the allegorical figure of Charity as she urges Filippo Neri (the then recent founder of oratories) to pursue greatness in the city, toured reflections on faith and suffering, explored spiritual and military heroism, dabbled in sensual temptations and ended with the angel's celebration of the defeat of Satan from Handel's La Resurrezione. The one thing that it did not do, on the whole, was show off Bartoli's voice to best advantage. Perhaps she was having a bad day, but many of the high-lying bravura sequences, from the first aria onwards, which, admittedly, nobody could really be expected to sing, emerged as simply sound produced by any possible means. Bartoli, though, acted as though she were loving every moment, and the audience responded as though they had never heard such a great voice.
She really sang in the reflective or sensual lower, slower arias, though: her trademark "Lascia la spina", from Handel's Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno was delicately magnificence, and the Empress Faustina's lament for her former paganism and simile-loaded celebration of her conversion, from Caldara's Il Martirio di Santa Caterina, although deeply conventional, was also very beautiful, with hints of the intensity of the Christians' music in Handel's Theodora.
Bartoli was splendidly supported by the Basel Chamber Orchestra, directed from the violin by Julie Schröder, with a fair bit of hand-waving from the singer herself. They all seemed to be getting on very well indeed: Bartoli clearly values good collaborators in her projects, of which this is at least as unlikely as any of the previous ones, and as fascinating. Charlotte Church appears on the cover of the current issue of OK magazine in a dark curly wig and copious cleavage, like a parody of Bartoli, but Church told an interviewer a few weeks ago that Lascia ch'io piango, Handel's rework of Lascia la spina, was the most boring thing she'd ever heard. Bartoli knows exactly why it's great.
As encores, Bartoli sang (to no-one's surprise, really), Bononcini's "Ombra mai fu", not a million semi-tones from Handel's later version, "Dal tempest" from Guilio Cesare, and a jolly Scarlatti aria in duet with a recorder, "Che dulce simpatia. The first encore was exactly right for her, as, interestingly was the second, whose fireworks sat perfectly with her voice. She chose to end, alas, with another Handel aria that really needed a soprano. Maybe it sounded better in the fifth row of the centre stalls.