While the concert hall’s audience in Lucerne was reduced by some half, concert attendees complied fully with the obligatory mask regulations, and found a sure-fire draw in the limited number of this summer’s “Life is Live” festival concerts. Among them, joined by the gifted Musiciens du Prince-Monaco under conductor Gianluca Capuano, mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli was to pay tribute to four Baroque composers, and would do so with terrific imagination, to say nothing of an infectious sense of humour. That refreshment alone did the audience good. Inspired by John Donne’s Song for St Cecilia’s Day, a poem showing how, in times of dire trouble, the redeeming art of “music shall untune the sky”, the concert had the apt title “What passion music cannot raise”.

Cecilia Bartoli and Gianluca Capuano
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

A frequently-changing backdrop of costumes and props added a dimension of colour and staging to the configuration of musicians and their historically-informed instruments. Concertmaster Andres Gabetta introduced the epic story of Marc Antony and Cleopatra with his sublime violin in Johann Adolph Hasse’s Marc Antonia e Cleopatra, while Bartoli sat at a dressing table, stage left, to emerge as the Queen of Egypt. Decked out with Cleopatra’s commensurate pageboy and fringe, she sang Georg Frideric Handel’s “V’adoro, pupille” from Giulio Cesare in Egitto under an awning of huge ostrich feathers that her two attendants held over her head. While her delivery was sovereign, the fawning fellows and feathers made the performance seem something of a marriage between a superbly-delivered musical offer and an exaggerated costume ball.

After an orchestral interlude for Georg Philipp Telemann’s spirited Concerto for trumpet, strings and basso continuo, Bartoli sang her signature “Lascia ch'io pianga” from Handel's Rinaldo in a new modus: one a tad heavier or deliberate than usual, but as quiet at its conclusion as a whisper or a prayer. For Handel’s “Desterì dall'empia dite” she stood between the orchestra’s fine soloists Thibaud Robinne (horn) and Pierluigi Fabretti (oboe), her body seeming almost electrified, her face beaming right through to the aria’s ending on a wholly inviting “si, si”.

Cecilia Bartoli, Gianluca Capuano and Les Musiciens du Prince-Monaco
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

Bby contrast, she took the role of a hardy hunter/warrior whose loose-fitting blouse and waterfall collar were studded with sparkling sequins. Antonio Vivaldi’s melodic interlude was followed by Ruggiero’s aria in Orlando furioso, “Sol da te, mio dolce amore”, whose pacing was simply superb, the flute soloist seeming to be Pan himself on the stage. More amusing, if somewhat drawn out and verging on self-conscious, was the staging for Handel’s “Augelleti, che cantate” from Rinaldo. The model of a small bird on a long and bendable stick was paraded around the stage to preface the piece: pleasant enough, but a detail that went on far too long.

Nevertheless, corona or not, the audience took to the colourful gala here in Lucerne like a house on fire. Near the end of the performance, still stage front and centre, Bartoli and Capuano even celebrated the occasion with thick cigars, jollying the audience into a worldly place one rarely travels to in such a celebrated hall. To its credit, the programme was original, heart-felt, and a delightful ode to joy, in short: simply legions away from any constrictions and discomforts the coronavirus imposes. For that alone, and as an old New England saying goes, this finely tuned and upbeat evening at KKL in Lucerne was “well worth the price of admission”.