This year mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli is celebrating 30 years of recording with Decca Classics, a collaboration that produced her highly successful 1999 Vivaldi album. Their latest venture – and Bartoli’s current tour with Les Musiciens du Prince, her brainchild – revisits the composer. Her stop at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam demonstrated that the best reason for celebration is that the Roman diva’s technical and expressive powers are undiminished. Inevitably, her voice, unique and instantly recognisable, has lost a little of its freshness. In its upper reaches it turns thin and piercing, but in its native mezzo country it still flows like molten amber. And Bartoli sings with such dedication that every word about burbling brooks and warbling larks sounds as if it is of global importance. She also loves to share the limelight with other musicians. Having toured with cellist Sol Gabetta and Cappella Gabetta, she is now appearing with the ensemble’s concertmaster, Sol’s brother Andrés.

Cecilia Bartoli © Decca | Kristian Schuller
Cecilia Bartoli
© Decca | Kristian Schuller

In a continuous programme that precluded applause between numbers, Gabetta was the soloist in Vivaldi’s most popular work, The Four Seasons. The concerto movements (minus the slow movements from Spring and Autumn) neatly framed ten opera arias that matched them in mood or theme. The birds in the first movement from Spring continued to chirrup in the dialogue between Bartoli and the flute in “Quell’augellin che canta”. The same staccato figures that tremble with cold in the opening bars of Winter tremble with horror in the ghost aria “Gelido in ogni vena”, so that was a natural pairing. The movements and arias either followed each other without a pause or were bridged by conductor Gianluca Capuano on the harpsichord, giving the concert the feel of an operatic performance. Bartoli and the instrumental soloists used all corners of the stage for their entrances and offstage effects, further enhancing the theatrical experience. Deprived of intermittent applause, the audience was already on its feet at intermission, and in a frenzy at the end.

The woodwind soloists matched Bartoli’s virtuosity and tasteful da capo variations, as in the exquisite “Non ti lusinghi la crudeltade” from Tito Manlio with its gently pleading oboe d’amore. Capuano accompanied the arias scrupulously. In the Seasons he favoured very fast tempi, sometimes sanding away the music’s comely contours, as in the bucolic Summer dances. His scenes were finely stitched tapestries in muted colours rather than vivid oil paintings. Gabetta played with plenty of fire, his breakneck speed at times compromising accuracy. When he took time to breathe he was lucid and refined, as in the slipping-on-the-ice solo in the last movement of Winter. Both he and Capuano used diminuendi and rests for narrative purposes, not always successfully – their semicolons sometimes sounded more like full stops, dimming the drama of the Autumn hunt, for instance. The preference for frenetic angularity best served the various orchestral storms drilled out in semi- and demisemiquavers.

Bartoli, famous for her quick-fire coloratura, proffered her own brand of thunder, occasionally underlined by bellicose flapping of her sapphire-blue dress. She spat out the precise notes in the revenge aria “Se lento ancora il fulmine”, bristling like a snarling lynx. In “Ah fuggi rapido” from Orlando furioso she arced an ornamental run from one end of the hall to the other as if flying a kite in a gale. Slow arias, such as the time-stoppingly beautiful “Vedrò con mio diletto” from Il Giustino, showed off her expressive core timbre and breath control. The excerpt from Farnace, “Gelido in ogni vena”, was ten-minutes plus of spellbinding theatre. Bartoli gradually decreased her volume until the final phrases were a mere whisper, achieving both intimacy and tragic breadth, something only a great interpreter can do.

Knowing that she’s unstinting with encores, her fans are always loath to let her go. There were no less than six on this occasion, or, to be precise, six and a half, a veritable miniconcert after the main event. After Handel’s demon-raising “Desterò dall’empia dite”, with trumpet obbligato, there was more Handel with the flute soloist. Then she grabbed a tambourine to accompany herself in Vivaldi’s jaunty “Sventurata navicella.” Cherubino’s aria “Voi che sapete” reminded us how well her caramel mezzo suits Mozart trouser roles. It was rather disorientating to hear Baroque instruments introducing “Non ti scordar di me”, but Bartoli stepped right into the early 20th-century idiom for a beautiful rendition of De Curtis’s perennial song. Then she stepped right back out for some more bravura sparring with the trumpet in Agostino Steffani’s “A facile vittoria”. The show came to an end when Steffani’s Baroque trumpet turned jazzy and Bartoli launched into the first verse of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”. Going by her past projects, both an evening of Italian evergreens and a jazz programme are unlikely propositions, but she could definitely pull off both.

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