“What a pipe! What modulation! What ecstasy to the ear! But heavens! What clumsiness! What stupidity! What offence to the eye!”. This is how Roger Pickering, a contemporary of Farinelli, described the great castrato. You can apply the first three exclamations to mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli’s recital entitled “Farinelli and His Times”, but certainly not the last three. While Farinelli seems to have had the stage presence of a broomstick, Bartoli’s performances crackle with energy. This time she added drama, pageantry, even tongue-in-cheek silliness, to her dazzling vocalism, by turning her recital into a mise en scéne involving a diva and her loyal dresser, played by an actor. The “and his times” part of the title enabled her to include works by Handel and other composers who did not compose for Farinelli, as well those who did, such as his voice teacher, Porpora. Why have only Handel’s Cleopatra when Bartoli, alluringly wielding an opera length cigarette holder, was equally entrancing as Hasse’s Egyptian queen?

Cecilia Bartoli
© Uli Weber | Decca

Dressed as a short-haired, black-coated aristocrat, she made a spectacular vocal entrance holding the first note of Porpora’s “Vaghi amori” for what seemed like forever. Then, with the house lights dimmed and harpsichord music bridging numbers to preclude applause, she proceeded to transform herself for each aria behind a dressing table, from lovesick hero in ruffled shirt to warbling heroine. The dresser prepared the diva’s vari-gendered costumes and wigs, which included the gold-and-red feathered creation from the Sacrificium project, offered consolatory hugs and fed her smoking habit. 

Saying that Les Musiciens du Prince under Gianluca Capuano provided the background music to these metamorphoses would short-change their delectable virtuosity. Demanding selections such as Fasch’s Concerto for trumpet and 2 oboes, tastefully spiced by added percussion, and music by flute specialist Johann Joachim Quantz showcased their outstanding soloists. Even at the briskest of tempi, they never lost their light, joyful touch.

In keeping with the showiness of the music, spotlighting Bartoli’s rapid-fire coloratura skills, bells and whistles festooned the evening. The percussionist literally jingled bells, as well as operating wind and wave machines. And whistles enhanced Bartoli’s birdsong in Handel’s “Augelletti, che cantate”, while she dangled a bird from a fishing rod above the audience. When she sang about a butterfly, the dresser twirled a butterfly on a wire. Bartoli has employed some of these effects before, and although some of them may sound cheesy, she sold them with total conviction and the audience bought them unreservedly. 

They did so, of course, because of her singing. The feathers and flirtation, the flouncing of skirts hiked up to reveal boots and trousers – none of them would mean a thing if Bartoli were not a singing sensation. While she has preserved her singular agility and spotless legato, her lower range has ripened to a darker vintage. The top notes are now more metallic, but as true as ever, and there are few voices in this repertoire that can concentrate so much pathos into slow arias such as Giacomelli’s “Sposa, non mi conosci?”, or such explosive exhilaration into a triumphant aria such as Handel’s “Da tempeste”. Bartoli's is the kind of talent that can whip a crowd into a frenzy. At the end of the concert, people yelled “Brava!”, shook her hand and even hugged her. Her fans not only love her instantly identifiable voice, but the fact that she always gives them something extra. On this occasion she even performed a graceful courtly dance to music from Ariodante. As one of her encores, she sang an excerpt from “Dopo notte”, from the same Handel opera, while blowing smoke rings with a cigarillo. I think it’s safe to say that Farinelli never did anything of the kind.