It’s a rare treat to experience a performance given by two musicians at the height of their craft, especially when the performers in question are Cecilia Bartoli and Daniel Barenboim, who have worked together since the mid-1990s, when Barenboim helped catapult the charismatic lyric mezzo into stardom after seeing her on TV in Paris in a concert dedicated to Maria Callas. Since then, the pair have had a longstanding history that has taken them from opera stages to concert halls the world over. On this particular evening, they joined forces in the Philharmonie in a benefit concert for the restauration of the Berlin State Opera's Unter den Linden house. It was a hot ticket that easily filled the hall and the musicians seemed to feed off the energy of an audience that loved them even more when things went less perfectly than planned, like the moment Bartoli’s seafoam gown was briefly caught on the edge of the staircase causing Barenboim to rush to her aid. Even when intermission was announced earlier than printed in the schedule, no one seemed to mind. The fact remained that the Roman singer always draws crowds and the maestro is a favorite in the German capital. Together, they presented a program of mostly Mozart dotted with dangerously high levels of audience enthusiasm and no shortage of standing ovations.

Cecilia Bartoli, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin © Thomas Bartilla
Cecilia Bartoli, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Thomas Bartilla

Barenboim, who has been General Music Director of the Staatoper since 1992, shone in myriad roles, first as accompanist to Bartoli, then as conductor to the Staatskapelle and finally – and fantastically – as both soloist and from-the-bench conductor during Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major. At age 73, the maestro shows no signs of slowing down, continuing to delight in a craft he has spent his entire life honing. Born in Argentina, Barenboim was quickly identified as a piano prodigy. His family moved to Israel when he was only 10, the same year he debuted in Vienna and Rome; the start of a celebrated performance and conducting career that has taken him to just about every major concert hall. If Bartoli stole the show by virtue of her diva status, it was only by a hair. Barenboim deftly navigated Mozart’s piano concerto, a charming work written around the same time as he completed The Marriage of Figaro, playing without sheet music, infusing his own coloring, artistic flare and expression. With the joy of a child playing with a new toy, Barenboim breathed life into the concerto, his hands tirelessly flying above the keys to direct the orchestra at every interim.

Bartoli entered the stage in a Cinderella-esque seafoam-green gown, her expressive visage greeting an audience of unabashed admirers. Although Mozart was composer du jour, the only non-Mozart work on offer was first piece of the evening: Haydn’s drama-filled Arianna a Naxos, a vocal work comprised of two recitatives and two arias sung by the forlorn lover. Diving right in, Bartoli flaunted her skills from the first measure. A true vocal communicator, she has an almost uncanny ability to convey a broad range of emotions. Never was there a woman who missed her lover more then she, or – at the next moment – brimming with rage as her acerbic flinging of the words “barbero” and “ingrato” suggested. Her singing is so expressive that it brings with it an intimacy that makes a large hall like the Philharmonie magically shrink to the size of a salon.

Cecilia Bartoli, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin © Thomas Bartilla
Cecilia Bartoli, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Thomas Bartilla

At times it almost felt as if she was singing a favorite piece for a close friend, or maybe just for herself out of the sheer joy of being able to express a range of human emotions through her powerful instrument. Whatever she's envisioning, Bartoli sings with apparent ease in the way only one who has gone beyond the challenges of vocal technique, diction, or memorization. Her vocal charms were on display in this haunting cantata.

Next, Bartoli presented arias from Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito. The singer has a long history with Mozart, first coming to fame in Hosenrolle like Cherubino and Sesto. The second piece of the evening, “Ch’io mi scordi di te” lost a bit of the magic as the orchestra came close to overpowering her. Returning after the earlier-than-annouced intermission, Bartoli bounded on stage in full male attire, suiting the role of Sesto in La clemenza di Tito, her voice ringing out in full form, sliding effortlessly over the coloratura in “Parto, parto”. 

*****