Bartoli Outdoes Herself

Diva, heading to Carnegie, at the top of her form on latest recording

Given the sheer difficulty of execution Bartoli’s highly ornamented repertoire presents, one might surmise that the CD’s title refers to the prohibitive nature of the musical writing. While the double entendre is undoubtedly intentional, the title actually describes music written during the ban on operatic performance enforced in Rome during the first decade of the 18th century.

In 1701, Pope Clement XI, taking his cue from his predecessor, Innocent XII, placed a ban on all public operatic performance. While Clement’s initial excuse may have been the worsening political conflict between Italy and Spain, the real reason lay in the Church’s moral conflict with the very idea of theater, which the papacy had condemned as a harbinger of sin and damnation. It certainly did not help the Church’s image that members of its own clergy had been seen in theaters openly enjoying themselves at the sides of courtesans and castrati.

Two years later, after Rome suffered two violent earthquakes from which the city was fortunate to survive, Clement extended his ban to all forms of theatrical entertainment as an act of thanksgiving. Not until 1710 did theaters renew attempts to stage operas. Even then, the Church continued to ban women from the public stage, leaving high vocal parts to castrati, male vocalists who genitals were intentionally sacrificed in boyhood for the sake of Christian purity.

The papacy’s decade-long ban was about as successful as America’s war on drugs. Cardinals and princes continued to commission lavish musical works staged at private palaces, and operatic composers merely shifted vehicles from writing operas to oratorios centering on allegorical discourses or sacred subjects. Nor was Christian morality maintained in such works as Caldara’s “Il Trionfo dell’innocenza” (“The Victory of Innocence”)––one of whose arias is heard here––in which two castrati sing the roles of girls courting each other.

Bartoli sings arias written during the decade of prohibition by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), Antonio Caldara (c. 1670-1736), and George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). While these men could certainly write soft and gentle arias––a case in point being Scarlatti’s “Mentre io godo in dolce oblio” from “Il Giardino di Rose,” in which the singer sweetly rests among the flowers as the orchestral writing unmistakably simulates a gentle breeze––they also seem to have reacted to the papal ban with a vengeance. Scarlatti’s “All’arme si accesi guerrieri,” which Bartoli tears through with astounding speed and force, is but one of several arias in which Biblical tales or moral allegories provide the excuse for composition of breathtaking power and virtuosic display.

There are times when Bartoli’s extended phrases are so perfectly executed that her breath control reminds one of Caballé’s. One example occurs in St. Francesca’s aria from Caldara’s “Oratorio per Santa Francesca Romana,” where Bartoli also demonstrates her fabled ability to convey pathos via mesmerizing soft, sustained tones. Equally impressive is her trill, held for several seconds in the disc’s final selection, Mary Magdalene’s moving recitative and aria from Handel’s “La Resurrezone di Nostra Signor Geso Cristo.”

While much of this repertoire is newly recovered and previously unknown to modern audiences, vocal lovers will recognize the trumpet accompaniment in Handel’s “Come nembo che fugge col vento” from the great aria “Vivi, tiranno” from “Rodelinda,” and the touching melody of “Lascia la spina” as a variation of the poignant “Lascia ch’io pianga” from “Rinaldo”—Bartoli’s most heavily applauded encore on her last U.S. recital tour.

Not all the arias count among a composer’s best, but such beauties as the dance of voice and winds in Handel’s aria for Mary Magdalene, the solo harpsichord that begins Caldara’s aria for Empress Faustina, and the delicious winds in Scarlatti’s aria for Ismael make one long for more.

Conductor Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre deserve applause. The playing is delicious. Thanks to such name musicians as Jérôme Hantaï and Jory Vinikour, a gratifying rainbow of clear, authentic instrument colors highlights the myriad wonders of the mezzo-soprano’s voice.

At 39, Cecilia Bartoli is clearly in her prime. The voice has never been more beautiful. Just when we think we know all that she can accomplish, she confounds the senses by conquering her most challenging repertoire to date. Indeed, the searing highs in the da capo variations that conclude Beauty’s aria from Handel’s “Il Trionfo del Tempo e de Disinganno” defy all reasonable expectation. This is vocal mastery of the highest order.

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