At the time of enlightened despots, Peter the Great’s successors, Czarinas Anna Ivanovna (his niece), Elizabeth Petrovna (his daughter) and Catherine the Great invited composers from the West (Germany and Italy) to work in St Petersburg. Today, their names are mostly rather obscure: Hermann Raupach, Francesco Domenico Araia, Vincenzo Manfredini and Domenico dall’Oglio… the music scores of their forgotten operas never left Russia. It is there, in the archives of the Mariinsky Theatre, with the support of its director Valery Gergiev, that Cecilia Bartoli unearthed them. She is currently touring concert halls in Europe to promote her latest project: the world première recording of a collection of arias composed in the 18th Century for the Imperial Court of Russia.

Cecilia Bartoli © Uli Weber | Decca
Cecilia Bartoli
© Uli Weber | Decca

The Italian mezzo-soprano is one of today’s best-selling classical music artists and Decca did not spare any effort in unleashing their well-oiled PR machine to launch the CD in October. Somewhat stunned by all the publicity, it is with  high expectations, and a trace of cynicism, that I took my seat in the packed Great Hall of the Concertgebouw. As it turned out, I quickly became totally engrossed by the performance and all expectations were exceeded.

It is just impossible not to enjoy Cecilia Bartoli’s over-the-top sense of spectacle, when she makes a grand entrance in an Empress’ gown with a train that covers almost entirely the red carpeted stairs that descends down the Great Hall’s stage; or when the hall’s lights were dimmed and the orchestra echoed with bird sounds to evoke the dark forest of Francesco Domenico Araia’s “Pastor che a notte ombrosa”.

It is just impossible not to be charmed by her warm stage presence: not only the engaging way she addresses the public, but also the spontaneity with which, for example, she gives the flautist a kiss on the cheek and invites him to bow with her after their duet in Domineco dall’Oglio’s “De miei figli”, a delicately detailed interplay of voice and instrument.

One can only admire the integrity of an artist who spends months researching her own material and puts such energy and passion into bringing it to the public. In this venture, Diego Fasolis is the perfect partner. The conductor, sometimes almost dancing behind his harpsichord, chiselled the sound of his Barocchisti to uncover beautiful details in those long-forgotten scores. These numbers are not mere curiosities but the fruit of talented composers. In my personal opinion, the most original amongst these Imperial crown jewels is Hermann Raupach’s “Idu na smert” from Altsesta, an arresting and lyrical aria for queen Alcestis as she departs for the Underworld. This is a classic Baroque da capo aria, but written to a Russian libretto – this almost 80 years before Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, reputedly the first Russian opera.

Cecilia Bartoli © Uli Weber | Decca
Cecilia Bartoli
© Uli Weber | Decca

But most of all, it was just impossible not to be seduced by the singer’s total mastery of her art. Most of the chosen arias unveiled exquisite slow and melancholic melodies – as if the exiled Italian composers adapted their fiery Latin temperaments to the more introverted Russian soul. In these pieces, the Roman mezzo unfolded seemingly endless legato lines, to let them vanish into delicate pianissimi. Each and every syllable was coloured and charged with emotion. Many times, the voice challenged the virtuosity of a flute, an oboe, a trumpet. There were outbursts of Ms Bartoli’s trademark coloratura fireworks too, impeccably delivered in Hermann Raupach’s “O placido il mare”, the da capo section of which is taken at dazzling speed. The voice might be of relatively modest size, but the emotion is supersized. Always, her singing was so full of expressive intensity that, even in this unknown repertoire, she managed to keep the audience captivated. The silence while she performed contrasted with the roaring applause after each number. At the end, the public, under her spell, did not want the evening to finish and she has to come back for five encores, before finally leaving the hall from the top of the stairs in a Czarina’s coat, complete with (fake) fur toque and cuff.