Monday, 6 December 2010

Cecilia Bartoli Rocks The Bridgewater Hall

Cecilia Bartoli is a gorgeous force of nature. She is also queen of the concept album. Whether exploring the Papal ban of opera in Rome during the 18th century, recreating the world of the controversial mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran or breathing new life into some of Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti's most popular duets with her big mate (and Opera Chat pin up) Bryn Terfel, she approaches each new recording as a large-scale project. A passionate academic quest to turn us on to beautiful music, if you will.

Her latest offering in this vein is 'Sacrificium', an amazing collection of arias written for castrati during their 18th century dominance of the operatic world. Its release may seem shocking to some, as Cecilia is on a definite mission to turn listeners on to a period of musical history in which the genital mutilation of boys for aural pleasure was deemed acceptable enough for many opera lovers to shout 'Evviva il coltellino!' ('long live the litle knife!') during performances, but given that my first real experience of Cecilia and my first knowledge of the castrati was a South Bank Show dedicated to her way back in the 1990s, my only question about 'Sacrificium' was...."girl, what took you so long?"

'Sacrificium' was released in 2009, but Cecilia's desire to educate the world about the castrati has continued throughout 2010 with the release of a DVD (click here to view taster) and a series of international concerts. On Friday, she made it through heavy snow to treat the north of England to an evening of her heavenly voice and mega-watt personality, hooking up with the very chic Basel Chamber Orchestra at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall to present a programme of castrati arias by Porpora, Broschi, Vinci, Leo, Araia, Graun and Handel.

Having ice-danced through the Manchester blizzard, I arrived just in time to pre-order a G&T and slide into my very comfortable central stalls seat before the musicians struck up their baroque magic, and with a flourish of her scarlet-lined silk cape, Miss Bartoli bounded onto the stage looking like the dandy highwayman in thigh-high leather boots and a white ruffled shirt. Flinging off her jaunty hat (complete with massive plumes) she jumped into the centre of the stage, opened her beautiful mouth and belted out Porpora's 'Come nave in mezzo all'onde' ('Like a ship amid the waves') so exquisitely and energetically that I was left blinking away tears.

There is something about the depth and intensity of Cecilia's voice combined with her huge energy and mad sense of humour which makes watching her do her thing an eminently moving experince. When I'd managed to compose myself and had taken a sneaky look around the rest of the auditorium, I realised I was far from the only one carried away in the moment. Feet tapped, shoulders swayed, heads nodded and fingers actually clicked as we were transported through high-octane baroque arias. It was impossible to sit still as Basel's string section built and built to create an intense, high tempo foundation for Cecilia's mind blowing coloratura to soar over- "My God!" I thought "She is actually rocking the place!"

Her genius, however, lies in her ablity to change tack in the blink of an eye. With a flourish of her red leather glove, she moved from the speedy and dramatic to the soft, romantic and vulnerable, creating an atmosphere in which you could have heard the tiniest of pins drop. The Bridgewater Hall seemed to hold its breath as she performed Handel's 'Lascia la spina, Cogli la rosa' ('Leave the thorn, Pluck the rose'). There was not a shuffle or a cough- Cecilia holds her audience in the palm of her hand, transfixing them with that wonderful expressive face and the gorgeous tone of her voice.

At the bottom of her range, the sound is deep, round and full. At the top, it is as if there is an amplified songbird let loose in the auditorium, which was evidenced best during  Porpora's 'Usignolo sventurato' ('The unhappy nightingale') as she competed with Basel's flautists to see who could mimic the nightingale most accurately (she won hands down). As well as posessing a talent for unbelievable vocal acrobatics, she has such a sensitivity for the words she sings that your heart seems to move with her every breath, and without realising it, you're drawn into the bitter-sweet world of the castrati, which is of course exactly what she desires.

We were not left to languish in the melancholy arias for long though, as she departed the stage several times (probably to allow us all to recover our composure) leaving us in the talented hands of BCO, who performed six wonderful short pieces across the evening. A shout out should definitely go to orchestra leader Julia Schroder, who kept pace like an elegant violin-playing ballerina, swaying to the music in a black gown that would have put Audrey Hepburn to shame.

Cecilia's own damatic costumes were created by Italian costume designer Agostino Cavalca, who has worked with opera companies all over the world including ROH and WNO. I like to ramble about fashion and costume at the best of times, but Cecilia's use of it for 'Sacrificium' has been especially clever. Her ample chest, comely thighs and tumbling curls mean that her appearance on stage will never resemble the castrati heroes in the way that her voice does, but when poured into her dandyesque get-up, she communicated the strange mixture of masculine and feminine that resulted in the castrati being so desired by men and women alike.

Post interval, the cape and ruffles were replaced with a suitably baroque gown of bejeweled gold broacde and ruched red silk, daringly hitched up at the front to reveal trousered legs and leather boots. It was girl plays boy plays girl, and I guess suggestive of an area of the castrati we're all a little fascinated by. It was unbelievably thought provoking for a recital performance, but as I have already said- this is not just the promotion of an album- it's an academic project.

By the end of the evening Miss Bartoli was sporting foot-high feathers around the collar of her dress, and as she sang the final dramatic lines of Porpora's 'Nobil Onda' ('The more narrowly confined') she plucked them out and threw them to her adoring audience before flouncing off the stage. At this point, we were all a little bit in love with her and the applause grew more rapturous as she gave us three generous encores, including Caldara's beautiful 'Profezie, di me diceste' ('Prophecies, you foretold').

By now the Bridgewater Hall was on its feet every time she smiled and took another bow, and when she made her final exit and the lights came up, everyone around me was wearing a huge smile and praising her unbelievable talent to complete strangers. "She's so wonderful I've seen her four times!" exclaimed an elderly gentleman. "Brilliant, brilliant!" chirruped two Japanese girls I chatted to on the way out. I guess they don't call her 'La Gioiosa' ('The Joyful One') for nothing.