On Sunday, the evening came rather quickly amidst a blustery, cool wind. Before I knew it the sky had darkened. I sat with my cell phone on a bench in Central Park and chatted with my grandmother in Nebraska, gloating about how I was planning a short walk to Carnegie Hall to see a famous opera singer. Slowly, small yellow lights began to flicker on within the high rises of Central Park West. I scrambled to find the path to the exit while describing to my dear Grandma what a mezzo-soprano was, then rambled toward the golden lights of Seventh Avenue, all the while grinning from ear to ear. At once, Carnegie Hall stood, impressively, like an orange cathedral—warmly lit and buzzing with opera fans, journalists, artists, and real estate magnates. All together mingling, embracing, waiting to see Cecilia Bartoli, the opera world’s most famous superstar.
The mezzo-soprano: undoubtedly, the most underrated of the female voice-types, lower than the soprano range but higher than contraltos. In the past, mezzos have tended to be cast as whores and maids while sopranos got all the glory. But recently, mezzos have graced the stages with an unexpected charm that the audience favors. Other mezzos like Marilyn Horne have deserved success, but few have the kind of record-label and opera-house marketing strength used to boost Cecilia Bartoli, who is now in greater demand than any other singer, regardless of vocal category.
With an outstanding career that spans working with conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Sir Georg Solti, James Levine, and Zubin Mehta to singing at the Zurich Opera House, Metropolitan Opera and Scala di Milano, Cecilia Bartoli, a native Roman, has engaged audiences with her unique and enthusiastic style, one fiercely dramatic and strongly committed to a very small range of music, mostly Baroque and Classical. Some have described her instrument as not so much overpowering as displaying an athletic character, something more theatrical that lends itself to drama, poetry and recordings. A two-time Grammy Award winner for Best Classical Vocal Performance, Cecilia Bartoli possesses a discography that compiles more than 10 complete opera recordings and dozens of solo CDs. Her Mozart Portraits (Decca, 1994) is among my all-time favorite CDs. Why? Because it showcases her vocal talent and technical prowess in a highly challenging Classical repertoire. (Now, when I say highly challenging try to imagine singing a three-scale run to the insane wizardry of Mozart in one breath.) I have waited 10 years to see Bartoli perform in person—I was one week too late in 1999 to see her as Susanna in The Met’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Nonetheless, I was delighted to hear Ms. Bartoli in the more suitable and intimate setting of Carnegie Hall, as her current North American tour marked its halfway point in New York.
When I walked in to the Isaac Stern Auditorium I was immediately struck with the silent grandeur and acoustic marvel that is Carnegie Hall. I found myself gazing in wonder at its ornately brocaded proscenium, red velvet cushions and beautifully tiered balconies. Later I looked up from reading my program to see Alberto Vilar find his seat (that happened to be directly in front of mine). For those unfamiliar with his name, Mr. Vilar is the billionaire who so loves the opera that he single-handedly funded a number of productions at the Met this past year, including War and Peace last March. More recently, Mr. Vilar backed down from a $700,000 agreement to the famous opera house, citing diminished finances. But despite these difficulties, Mr. Vilar is still quite possibly the most important patron of the opera at a time when funding for the performing arts does not grow on trees. I was amazed to have him practically in my company. Noticing him turning off his cell phone, I thought to myself, “When Alberto Vilar shuts off his cell something wonderful is about to happen”.
The lights dimmed to welcome the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), led by Alison Bury, to the stage. (How can you not respect an ensemble with a name like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment? The name speaks for itself.) As the United Kingdom’s leading period-instrument ensemble the OAE draws inspiration from music of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. With its effortless exposition of Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor (1729) it was clear that this was a stellar group of musicians, all of whom seemed in perfect unity with each other. The strings packed a punch of swaying rhythm, and an undeniable pulse filled the Hall with astounding musical resonance—a prime appetizer for the evening of music to come.
When Ms. Bartoli appeared on stage, wearing a full lavender gown, the audience cheered and shouted for a full minute. She lowered her head and bade “Grazie” and “Thank you” while clutching her right hand to her heart. When she sang it was clear that a unique style controlled her performance. At first, the sound was not quite as full and vibrant as her recording work, but knowing that her voice was just a matter of feet from my ears made each note more integral to absorb. She breezed through the “Gelosia” aria from Ottone in Villa (Vivaldi, 1713), which when translated reads:
You have already sent my soul
To a place far worse than hell
This was a sure crowd-pleaser full of impossible runs, trills, and octave jumping scales. Ms. Bartoli displayed a fiery passion for her music. She nodded her head, contorted her face, batted her eyelashes, rolled her eyes, and clutched her fingers, demonstrating a frantic, yet playful personality. Her gaze was attentive, intense and at the same time fixed on the meaning of her words. She was obviously in love with the music around her played brilliantly by the OAE. This was a collaboration of the finest degree and precision. I found myself bouncing to this Baroque-like disco, which, in its day, was the most popular music of its time. Every trill, every note, and the ascension of every musical chord was in place—a meticulously planned journey traveled via the innate coordination that each musician on that stage possessed. Then there was the thrill of applause from the audience—a fantastic roar of hands clapping along with faint shouts. It was as if I was rafting down Niagara Falls. After her first set of songs Ms. Bartoli had already won a standing ovation.
My favorite piece of the night was “Ombra mai Fu” from Il Xerxe (1694) by Giovanni Bononcini. Not that the other pieces were unremarkable, but I was particularly taken aback by the very sweet and smooth rhythm of this aria. While singing the words:
Never was there shade of a plant
More gentle and loving than you!
Ms. Bartoli displayed a deep range, impeccably involved in and devoted to the meaning of each word. There was no great philosophy behind these words—only a solid conviction of phrase and feeling—but as most love songs do, this song sounded great in Italian. After all, Ms. Bartoli specializes in stock characters that have nothing more to sing about except love and ships dashing against rocks. One could tell that she too was captivated by the pulsating beat of the OAE as her warm mezzo voice clung to the audience like a soft velvet blanket.
Her interpretations of two Italian arias by Christoph Willibald Gluck (most impressively, “Se mai senti spirati sul volto” from La clemenza di Tito (c. 1752)) were finely tuned and carried a weighty sound of tone and color. Amazingly, she hit high notes in these pieces that displayed more of a bel canto range, a feat to applaud no matter how much vocal fatigue can be traced. (That being said, Cecilia showed only mild signs of fatigue early on in the evening, but not in the second half of the concert. Believe me, singing is hard, and the higher the notes the more stressful it is on the vocal chords.) Although Gluck claimed to write “music in a style completely different and never before heard”, these pieces sounded very similar to the rest of the repertoire Ms. Bartoli brought to Carnegie that evening. If she were to be criticized at all it would be for the small range of musical genres she sang. One can only take Baroque music so far (it’s rather repetitive and set in the major chords), but as an audience member who rarely has the opportunity to hear those pieces sung live I could have listened to Baroque music by this virtuoso for many weeks to come. I can forgive Ms. Bartoli for bringing us the comfortable range of these pieces because, quite frankly, I haven’t heard anyone else do them better. She is probably best known for her interpretations of Rossini and Donizetti, but will Ms. Bartoli explore the different ranges of 20th Century music? Who cares? There are plenty of vocalists to do just that.
Ms. Bartoli’s animated energy kept the audience enchanted throughout the night. Among other impressive pieces, Riccardo Broschi’s “Son qual nave ch’agitata” from Artaserse (1734) was particularly notable. In this piece, Ms. Bartoli showed off her incredible breath control by holding a note for what seemed like 20 seconds. Broschi’s work has built trademarks in opera such as trills, rapid repeated notes, cascading scales, and messa di voce (a swell and diminuendo on a held note), all of which Cecilia Bartoli conquered with astounding appeal.
The audience leapt to their feet at the end of the program, many shouting “Bravo!” at the top of their lungs. Bartoli came back for three wonderful encores, but this was still not enough for all the opera lovers in the audience. Even after almost two and a half hours the audience was still insatiable to hear more. Every bit of the audience’s energy emanated to show love and appreciation for Baroque music and a classic diva.