Cecilia Bartoli sings Steffani at Barbican Hall

Agostino Steffani
Henrico Leone – Overture
Alarico il Baltha – Schiere invite
Tassilone – Sposa, mancar mi sento … Deh, non far colle tue lagrime
La superbia d’Allesandro – Non prendo consiglio
La liberta contenta – Overture
Niobe, regina di Tebe – Amami, e vederai
I trionfi del fato – Overture
Alarico il Baltha – Si, si, riposa o caro … Palpitanti sfere belle
La liberta contenta – Botte amica al cieco dio
Tassilone – Più non v’ascondo; A facile vittoria
Marco Aurelio – Overture
La liberta contenta – Faschi crepuscoli
La superbia d’Alessandro – Luci ingrate
Henrico Leone – Moriro fra strazi e scampi
Tassilone – Dal tua labbro amor m’invita
Orlando generoso – Overture
Niobe, regina di Tebe – Ove son? … Dalmio petto
La lotta d’Hercole con Acheloo – Aires pour les nymphes de la riviere
Niobe, regina di Tebe – Dal alma stanco … Sfere amiche
Arminio – Suoni, tuoni, il suolo scuata

Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano)

Diego Fasolis (director & harpsichord)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 15 November, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Cecilia BartoliCecilia Bartoli’s latest project is to disinter the operas of Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), mid-Baroque court composer, a high-flying diplomat who spent his career in Germany and no less high-flying priest charged by the Vatican with keeping the Roman Catholic flame burning in that country. He may also have been a castrato. Bartoli’s concert came on the back of her latest release, Mission, and sampled operas Steffani wrote between 1687 and 1709. He was a pan-European, trained in Italy, composing for a German audience, with a marked French influence to his style – and his music lived on into the next generation of Baroque composers through Handel’s various borrowings.

The sumptuously produced disc – the booklet notes take about an hour to read – rather overeggs the cloak-and-dagger aspects of Steffani’s life, compounded by lots of photographs of Bartoli dressed as a bald priest/eunuch. Mercifully, she didn’t employ that sort of back-up in the concert. Perhaps if she had, though, it would have drawn attention away from a parade of predominantly short arias, each geared to a brief flourishing of a particular sentiment. We had the translation but not the dramatic context of the pieces (surprisingly also not covered in the disc’s packaging), and Bartoli must have been aware of fatigue potential in the neatly organised stage changes, some purely instrumental overtures and incidental music, and batches of unrelated arias sung without breaks. Mind you, Bartoli could have sung the Venetian telephone directory to the packed Barbican Hall and the bearded fellow sitting near me would still have bellowed “brava, bravissima” at every opportunity.

Despite pleading a cold – and with a brief coughing pause in her second item – her voice and stage-presence were on fine, fiery form. After the warm-up Overture from Henrico Leone, she made a characteristically gleeful entrance slapping a tambourine as she launched into a trumpet-like cascade of coloratura. Another trumpet aria – ‘A facile vittoria’ from Tassilone – brought the house down at the end of the first half, Bartoli vamping with the obbligato baroque trumpet (Simon Lilly, excellent) in some stunningly virtuosic, close-echo work, and she returned to the martial art in the grand finale, the welter of runs and decoration delivered with unbelievable control, though she now doesn’t take her fabulous agility for granted.

In the gentler arias, notably three from Niobe (staged at the Royal Opera House two years ago), she hit her stride in terms of intimacy and intensity. Bartoli has that enviable ability to make you think she is performing just for you, and though her voice may not have all that lustrous, infinitely pliable solidity – she is peerless in her breath control (without much recourse to the orgasmic breathiness that has been part of her armoury) – there is always the seamless mobility through her register, those hair-raising moments when she takes her voice right back to something between a hum and a croon, those equally jaw-dropping crescendos and diminuendos with which she can inflect a single note and the slight flutter in her voice that is always ready to morph into the most delicate trill. The Niobe selections, in particular, gave her space to refresh her familiar, time-arresting magic.

The Basle Chamber Orchestra supported with hyper-reactive aplomb, and between director Diego Fasolis and the extravagantly mobile leader Julia Schroder, no one can have been in doubt as to where the down-beat came. Steffani’s music has some unusual accompaniments and enticingly irregular phrase lengths, but moments of piercing, tear-jerking beauty were rare, as though the music was there more a vehicle for Baroque mannerisms, a point confirmed by the two Handel encores, ’Laschia la spina’ really hitting the eviscerating spot.

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