Cecilia Bartoli at Barbican Hall – Handel and his Rivals

Rinaldo – Ouverture; Furie terribili; Dunque i lacci … Ah, crudele
Lotario – Scherza in mar
Ouverture in G minor – Allegro
Alcina – Ah, mio cor
Il Gedeone – Overture
Perdono, amata Nice – Overture
Teseo – Ah, che sol per te, Teseo … M’adora l’idol mio
Amadigi – Mi deride … Desterò dall’empia Dite
Giulio Cesare in Egitto [Overture & various scenes]

Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano) & Franco Fagioli (countertenor)

Kammerorchester Basel

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 8 December, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Cecilia BartoliThis (almost) all-Handel evening, part of the Barbican Centre’s “Great Performers” series, was off to a flyer before a note of music had been played. Poor Julia Schröder, the bright young leader-director of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, stumbled over the dais as she took her bow and sent her music stand – stacked high with loose-leaf scores – crashing spectacularly to the ground. Happily, the fall-out of flying papers and sheepish grins appeared to help everyone on the platform relax into the mood of informality, wit and good-natured banter that characterised the entire concert.

After a fizzing Overture to “Rinaldo” from the hybrid band of players (baroque brass and wind; modern strings with a mixture of bows old and new), Cecilia Bartoli arrived to gales of applause and musical storm-effects for a thrilling ‘Furie terribili!’ that earned her the first of several adoring “bravas!” from her fans.

Bartoli is a star who earns her stripes. Aside from the infectious warmth she radiates, she emphasised her credentials as a serious collegial musician by placing herself among the players, clad, like them, in black (until the interval at least), and responding physically to the ebb and flow of every note, be it sung, struck, bowed or blown. Her whole body is an instrument, and she plays it with breathtaking virtuosity.

The centrepiece of the first half was a searing account of ‘Ah! Mio cor!’ from “Alcina”, one of several soprano arias selected by the mezzo. The emotional hurt of the scorned sorceress scorched the air as Bartoli appeared to plunder her very soul for dramatic truth. What a contrast with her wretchedness in the lament ‘Ah, crudel’ (“Rinaldo”), or with the playful and delightful ‘Scherza in mar’ from “Lotario”.

Franco Fagioli. Photograph: Marco BorggreveThe second half was devoted to “Giulio Cesare”, for which Bartoli (as Cleopatra) was joined by the Cesare of Franco Fagioli for an hour of the opera’s greatest hits. Here is a young countertenor to keep an eye on: the Argentinean’s register is the most masculine-sounding I’ve heard since James Bowman, and his ability to dip seamlessly into the high-tenor register is exceptional. As for Bartoli herself, it seems that the crueller the scoring, the more she’s able to relax in performance. Her hushed tenuto on the first word of “Aure, deh, per pieta” was exquisite.

The evening was padded out with inconsequential items for orchestra by Handel’s contemporaries, Veracini and Porpora, the latter replete with stamping and country-dance rhythms, but these trifles only served to accentuate the splendour of Handel’s own writing. Perhaps that was the idea.

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