Cecilia BartoliPhoto - Decca / Uli Weber

Acclaimed virtuoso Cecilia Bartoli is on her first tour down under after a career of more than 20 years in the upper hemisphere. Unlike many opera stars who come to Australia at the end of their careers, Cecilia Bartoli has decided to undertake this taxing challenge at a time when her voice and expressive powers are in full bloom. Australian audiences in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane have been given the opportunity to hear and see Cecilia live.

The choice of repertoire echoes the numerous Decca recordings known to her fans here. Beside her program of nineteenth-century art songs, she is singing also castrato arias featured in her albums ‘Opera Proibita’ (2005) and ‘Sacrificium’ (2009) in Sydney.

The concert in Adelaide on the 6th of March presented ‘An Evening of Romantic Songs’. A packed Festival Theatre at the Adelaide Festival Centre witnessed a rare occasion of intimacy with a diva and her artistry.

She entered slowly in a beautiful red gown and diamond jewellery acknowledging the eager spectators and their vivacious ovation. Cecilia’s voice is radiant, agile, poignant and thrilling. The focused tone carried through the vast space and was heard clearly up to the last row on the top balcony.

The concert transported the audience into a nineteenth century salon focusing on little known art songs from the Romantic period. Contrasting moods and a rich palette of colours characterised the interpretations of this precious Italian, French and Spanish repertoire most of which has been revived by Cecilia Bartoli and is rarely heard live in Australia.

Cecilia Bartoli is a great actress whose deep understanding of the narrative and emotional charge of a song is not only felt in the voice but shows in her physical interpretations. Her body is full of vigour. It follows knowingly the accompaniments waiting impatiently to explode into singing. Her face is animated and expressive of the subtle nuances only human sentiments can originate. Similarly to her predecessors from the nineteenth century, she used silent acting during instrumental portions of the songs. An example of this technique was very apparent during the prelude of Bellini’s ‘L’abbandono’. In the humorous ‘La farfalletta’ she brought into play gesture to paint elegantly the butterfly story.

Italian Romanticism of the bel canto era could not be more beautiful. Far from the shouts and tremors of operatic pretentions, this style of singing is the bel canto of the idealised past. Cecilia sings with aesthetic restraint, natural and effortless production, graceful phrasing enabled by seamless legato throughout the range, lightness of tone in the upper register, clean attacks, coloratura fireworks and lucid diction in Italian, Spanish and French. Cecilia sang a few full-bodied high notes where the music asked for such abandon, just for the sake of demonstrating that she could do it. Her middle and low registers have a rich timbre that she shows off with pleasure. Sergio Ciomei’s playing was correspondingly striking in its ease, clarity of attack and profound gentleness, never allowing the piano to overpower the voice.

Cecilia Bartoli is also an exceptional musician, known for her research. In 2010 the University College Dublin awarded her with an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music for her contribution to both music performance and research. Since her Vivaldi album in 1999 which revealed the splendour of his unknown operatic works, Cecilia has been working on research projects aiming to unearth forgotten musical heritage.

Departing from the contemporary core repertoire for the lyric mezzo-voice, Cecilia is developing new collections of works for this voice type by reviving compositions while destroying some performance practice preconceptions in the process. Cecilia Bartoli is paving a new path for generations of singers to come. She is also exemplifying research-based performance which has been recently recognised by the Australian Research Council as an academic output through Excellence for Research in Australia portfolio submissions.

Together with Romantic art songs by V. Bellini, G. Donizetti, G. Rossini and G. Bizet, in this program Cecilia features compositions by three influential singers of the nineteenth century - Manuel del P. V. R. García and his two daughters, Pauline Viardot and Maria Malibran. Pauline Viardot’s two compositions ‘Havanaise’ and ‘Hai luli’ are especially lyrical and imaginative. They bear witness to a skilled composer who is still unknown and unappreciated perhaps because she was a singer. García’s blazing ‘Yo que soy contrabandista’ pays homage to his career and authority. Cecilia captures effectively the Spanish soul in her interpretation of this work.

The Maria Malibran project is based on thorough research in archives, libraries and museums. It highlights music written for Malibran as well as her own compositions and those of her father. Artefacts were exhibited in a travelling trailer museum all over Europe. The project culminated with a concert in Barcelona’s landmark Palau de la Música Catalana in 2008, where Cecilia was accompanied by period instruments and a flamenco group for ‘Yo que soy contrabandista’. A DVD and a CD have been issued.

The project presented a new perspective on authentic performance practice of opera from the nineteenth century. It has been followed with a recording of Bellini’s ‘La sonnambula’ (2009) on Decca’s L’Oiseau Lyre label – a label founded by Australian Louise Hanson-Dyer that prides itself with authentic performance revivals. In this program Cecilia concluded with the humorous and difficult ‘Rataplan’, emulating the brilliance of Malibran’s voice and responding to her ingenuity as a composer. Cecilia is dispersing the concentration on male composers in classical music by bringing into the light works by professional women composers.

The program finished but the concert continued with immeasurable applause which brought back Cecilia and her accompanist to the stage many times. They continued the Romantic theme and went forward in time into the early twentieth century by performing works by the Neapolitan composer E. De Curtis. Between ‘Ti voglio tanto bene’ and ‘Non ti scordar di meCecilia sang the Catalan song ‘Canto negro’ by X. Montsalvatge.

Cecilia Bartoli’s debut has brought great excitement to the circles of classical music connoisseurs and scholars in Australia. Let us hope that the reception of her performances here and the unusual beauty of Australia will recharge her and inspire her to continue pushing the frontiers of modern classical music.

Andrew McManus Presents
An Evening Of Romantic Songs – Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti.

Pianist Sergio Ciomei

Venue: Festival Theatre | Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Street, Adelaide
Date: 6 Mar 2011
Tickets: $255.00 - $75.00
Bookings: www.bass.net.au

Written by Daniela Kaleva, University of South Australia

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