I am not particularly keen on the Barbican as a performance venue when it comes to concerts such as this one. Although they’ve spruced up the interior and made it a very comfortable hall, that dry acoustic is such an irritating factor. Of course, I am by no means alone when I express my dislike for the Barbican’s lack of resonance, and I hear similar comments from others on a regular basis. So why, year after year, does Cecilia Bartoli choose this venue for her annual, pre-Christmas concert? What I’d give to hear her in the intimacy of a recital at Wigmore Hall, Cadogan Hall or the Purcell Room: wonderful acoustics and small enough to take Bartoli’s voice.
The Barbican is not only dry, but also a big hall to fill and I must admit, especially being so used to the ideal sound of her many recordings, the famous Italian mezzo sounded rather quieter than expected. When I was right up at the back of the balcony for her Maria Malibran concert two years ago, I experienced the same problem, and assumed it was related to my student-budget seat. But alas, even in a prime seat, the voice was still a little distant. I really don’t think this can be assigned to a lack of projection – her diction was first-rate from beginning to end, and the voice did carry, but it simply wasn’t big enough to fill every nook and cranny of the Barbican.
The programme of this concert largely followed that of the recent disc, Sacrificium, though several arias were exchanged for others, and not necessarily favourably. I particularly missed the presence of Caldara’s “Profezie, di me diceste” from Sedecia, the second track on the disc and a real gem. However the addition of some understandably necessary orchestral overtures and interludes was most welcome, with the members of Il Giardino Armonico – surely one of the most exciting period-instrument ensembles around at the moment – all playing with gusto throughout. More importantly, there was a real sense that all concerned were genuinely pleased to be there – a feature which is too seldom conveyed in orchestras, especially when adopting the role of accompanist.
After a scintillating Sinfonia from Porpora’s Meride e Seliunte, they broke into “Come nave in mezzo all’onde” from Siface, the same aria that opens the Sacrifcium disc. Bartoli however was nowhere to be seen. Only moments before her entry did the side door fling open, revealing the great mezzo in Dick Whittington-esque garb of black boots and trousers, a white shirt, black coat, and red gloves, all under the cover of a black cloak with red interior. So clamorous was the applause accompanying this grand entrance, before a single note had been uttered, that the poor orchestra had to wait for it to die down and repeat the introduction. Quite why she was dressed like Dick Whittington, I don’t know, but by the end of the aria, I really didn’t care either. All four cylinders really were firing from the start, and Bartoli’s formidable technique had no need of a ‘warm-up’ aria. As heard on the recording, the articulation in semiquavers passages was absolutely spot-on here, and even in the Barbican’s cruel space, not a single note was lost.
The second aria was the first of three that do not appear on the disc. Riccardo Broschi’s “Chi non sente al mio dolore” from Merope proved to be a remarkable example of the castrato range. Bartoli offered some exquisitely controlled, pianissimo singing in her higher tessitura, as well an impressive lower register, which never sounded forced. So secure is Bartoli’s intonation in general that it seems quite churlish to mention the one or two instances in this aria where she was ever so slightly under pitch. Indeed if it were any other singer I doubt this would even have been noticeable. This aria also included the first of several instances of Bartoli ‘conducting’ Il Giardino Armonico with outstretched arms. Such gestures were minimal and helped maintain an excellent sense of ensemble, which was very tight throughout the concert.
Porpora’s “Parto, ti lascio, o cara” was given the same, tender treatment it received on the recording. Her control in the higher register really was superb, facilitating some deeply heart-felt expression in the voice. This was followed by another aria not included on Sacrificium: Vinci’s “Cervo in bosco” from Medeo, wonderfully executed in every way, though not necessarily as captivating as some of its bedfellows. A greater disappointment came in the aria that succeeded it: Leo’s “Qual farfalla” from Zenobia in Palmira, for which Bartoli was joined at the front of the stage by the two flautists. It’s just rather bland music, and although I didn’t mind its inclusion on the recording, it seemed really quite dull in concert.
Fortunately the aria from Araia’s Berenice, which closed the first half, livened things up a bit – indeed, almost too much. So daring were Bartoli’s dramatic expressions that she inadvertently invited a spontaneous applause after an abrupt cadence and had to gesture wildly for some time to shut everyone up. Still, what followed before and after this interruption were some flashy coloratura passages, all with Bartoli’s customary rapid-fire articulation.
The second half got off to a less-then-ideal start, with the inclusion of some annoying bird-whistles played by members of the orchestra for another aria from Porpora’s Siface, “Usignolo sventurato”. It is ironic that the liner notes for the CD boast the skill of this ‘simile aria’, which “imitates the melancholy song of the nightingale”. Why the need for gimmicky, very distracting and frankly silly whistles then? I wouldn’t have minded so much had they ceased after their initial, humorous entrance, but the recurring instances really became quite irksome by the end.
The penultimate aria was by Vinci, but much to my dismay, this was not the same as the (only) Vinci aria on Sacrificium. What was so good about the latter was its use of a baroque thunder machine, which sounded fantastic. I was eager to see it in action, but unfortunately we were given an aria from Alessandro nelle Indie instead. My disappointment was short-lived, as Bartoli reappeared in a change of clothes: a glittering, gold top and a long, vibrant red train wrapped around her waist. It was here that the mezzo reminded us all why she is one of the most celebrated Rossini singers in the world. She is a born comedienne, and this talent aided her considerably for this comic aria. Facial expressions will no doubt have annoyed some of the more pessimistic critics in the audience, but her raised eyebrows and flashing eyes suited the character of the aria perfectly.
In my review of Sacrificium I waxed lyrical about Bartoli’s incredible two-octave arpeggios in Porpora’s “Nobil onda” from Adelaide. It was an excellent aria with which to close the concert, but how would those arpeggios fair in a live context? Superbly. Indeed, they were executed so brilliantly that I was made to feel like a traitor for even entertaining the possibility that they might have been otherwise.
After thunderous applause, cheers, and most of the audience on their feet, Bartoli treated us to two encores. I say ‘treated’, but actually I was a little disappointed. The first encore was Handel’s “Lascia La Spina” which has become rather cliché for Bartoli by now and which isn’t one of the arias on the bonus disc of Sacrificium. Of greater concern however was that the extremely tight ensemble between singer and orchestra seemed to suddenly get rather sloppy, and in more than one place too. I found this intriguing, since there was only one moment on the Sacrificium disc where I made a similar comment, and that was in the only Handel aria on the (bonus) disc, “Ombra mai fu”. What is it about Bartoli singing Handel with Il Giardino Armonico and not having tight ensemble?! This was followed by Broschi’s “Son qual nave”, which appeared on the recording in its complete form: at the concert we had to settle for a truncated version. I thought this was a pity, especially because after the Handelian slip of concentration everyone seemed back on form for the Broschi. Bartoli came on, adorned with a plume of big, bright red, castrato-esque feathers sprouting out from behind her head, and brought the house down. It rounded off a highly entertaining evening very well though, and a few small gripes aside – not least those bloody bird-whistles – this concert confirmed that La Bartoli is still very much on form.