As part of the "Triumph of Handel" festival at the Palace of Versailles, the world famous mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli, gave two concerts in the Galerie des Glaces: Handel's Heroines and Sacrificium. Bartoli's involvement with the works of Handel is long-standing, as is her relationship with Baroque music in general. This year, she has taken the role of Artistic Director of the Easter Festival in Salzburg, which she is dedicating to Cleopatra, the heroine of Handel's Giulio Cesare, whose role she will play in the staged version. She returns to Versailles and the Galerie des Glaces after two excellent evenings devoted to Vivaldi last year. The excitement before the concert was palpable, with people flying over just for this concert.
Bartoli's opener was the ferocious "Furie terribili" from Rinaldo. Furious it was, with Bartoli unleashing the imps of Hell with this devastating rendition. Antonini's direction was flawless, with the players of Il Giardino Armonico tearing into the music. Bartoli incorporated the wind machine and thunder sheet she used to such great effect in her Barbican Concert in 2010, to even greater effect in the haunting acoustic of the Galerie des Glaces. Bartoli's ability to move between extremes of emotion with little or no time to prepare became apparent with the haunting "Dunque, i lacci d'un volto...Ah crudel!" again from Rinaldo: the A section slow and haunting, the B section fast and raging. One of the things Bartoli does so well is large jumps between the registers, and arpeggios/melismas which take her through the three registers: This she demonstrated wonderfully with the joyous "Scherza in mar la navicella" from Lotario.
The next segment of the concert came from Giulio Cesare. First, Il Giardino Armonico gave us a rousing rendition of the Overture: stately, regal and measured in the Introduction, and fast, vibrant and wild in the fugue. The second piece was one of the three highlights of the evening: Cleopatra's "Se Pietà di me non senti." As the first chords of that most mournful of arias floated through the Galerie des Glaces, the Sun, which was in the process of setting, metamorphosed into a baleful red/orange eye, bathing the Galerie in its sorrowful rays, and rendering the crystals of the chandeliers into tears of blood. It was in this atmosphere that Bartoli poured forth all the grief and despair of Cleopatra, believing as she does, she will never see her beloved Cesare again. The B section, with its phrases rising high in the voice, was particularly moving. By the end of the aria, the sun had set, along with Cleopatra's dreams.
The last segment before the interval was an interesting mix: two pieces from "Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno" and one from "Teseo." Il Giardino Armonico were quite frankly excellent during theOverture of "Il trionfo" and particulary praise must go to the dueting violinists for an inspired performance. If we didn't think we could feel any more sorrow than we did during "Se Pietà" we were wrong: Bartoli gave us "Lascia la spina." She took the aria slowly, giving each phrase time to breath, to grow and to draw us in. The high, gossamer-like pianissimo phrases in the B section were so filled with despair - we needed saving! So Bartoli ended the first half of the concert with the magnificent "M'adora l'idol mio" from Teseo. Her formidable runs and playful ornamentation were delightful, and the imitative melismas between Bartoli and the Oboe were delightful.
After the interval, we were treated to the idyllic, pastoral "Felicissima quest'alma" from Apollo e Dafne. Bartoli was at her most youthful and innocent in this charming aria, each phrase lightly delivered, with her trademark delicate pianissimos in evidence throughout the piece. The next aria could not have been more contrasting: "Si, vendetta... Pugneran con noi le stelle" from Rodrigo. Trills, runs and fast arpeggios abound in this military-sounding piece. The speed with which Bartoli fired off the coloratura passages was phenomenal, and all with such apparent ease. She even managed to tell someone off for filming during one of the most difficult sections using charade-style hand gestures! We were then treated to an Overture by Francesco Maria Veracini, his No. 6 in G Minor. Giovanni Anotnini drew out some fantastic sounds from Il Giardino Armonico, who played and moved like a flock of birds, completely together, like one organism.
The final section of the concert began with the third act symphony from Alcina, followed by the devastating "Ah! mio cor." The heartache of the spurned witch-queen was brought to life so vividly by Bartoli, that there were people crying in the audience. The high lying phrases were touched so tenderly, lightly, that they seem to have an ethereal quality not of this world. Bartoli attacked the B section with passion, providing an amazing contrast with the first part of the aria. It was an amazing performance. We were then treated to the third act march from Giulio Cesare, before Bartoli ended with "Desterò dall'empia Dite" from Amadigi. The duet between the Thibaud Robinne on the trumpet and Pier Luigi Fabretti on the oboe was fabulous, while Bartoli's tempestuous rendition of this very demanding aria was out of this world. The roar that came from the audience was well deserved.
We were treated to three encores, the first of which had Giovanni Antonini duetting with Bartoli on his recorder. The second encore was the da capo section of Cleopatra's aria "Da Tempeste" from Giulio Cesare. Her ornamentation was perfectly chosen, highlighting and complementing the original composition nicely. The speed at which she took the aria reminded me of just how frighteningly accurate her coloratura capacity actually is. What was lovely was that she really seems to enjoy singing this aria, and that came across in her delivery. As the time drew towards midnight, we wondered if we were going to have any further encores. Bartoli came out one last time, and serenaded us with the appropriately named "O sleep" from Semele. Accompanied by just the harpsichord and solo cello, the simplicity of the aria was sublime in Bartoli's expert hands. So beautiful were the languid phrases, that there was a slight pause after the aria before we started to applaud: it was as though the whole room were returning from some far off place.
The whole experience was absolutely amazing. Bartoli's artistry and the stunning Galerie des Glaces combined to produce an atmosphere I doubt I will experience again. Even the sun played its part, so befitting in the Palace of the Sun King. All images © James Edward Hughes 2012.
Last year, at the Barbican, I was lucky enough to get a stalls seat near the front at a concert of forgotten castrati arias performed by Cecilia Bartoli to promote her Sacrificium album. It was a fantastic evening, with Bartoli exhibiting some inhumanly fast coloratura, phrases lasting over 30 seconds, and pinpoint pianissimos. A couple of weeks later, I noticed she was to perform another selection of Baroque arias this December, focusing on Handel. Out came the credit card, and a week later I was the proud owner of a ticket. Having waited a year to see this concert, I wondered if anything could match the brilliance of the Sacrificium selection: I pleased to say that not only did she match it, she even managed to improve on it.
Billed as "Handel and his Rivals", the "Rivals" in question were the musical directors and composers associated with the "Opera of the Nobility", a company set up by a group of nobles in the court of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Frederick hated his parents, King George II and Queen Caroline of Ansbach, to the extent that he opposed them in almost everything they did. This situation probably arose due to the prolonged separation between parents and child, which lead to George and Caroline to refer to him as a "foundling"! Anyway, he setup an opera company to rival Handel's, as Handel was much loved by the King and Queen.
The first musical director of the Opera of the Nobility was Nicola Porpora. Porpora's opening gambit with the Opera of the Nobility was the Opera Adrianna in Naxo: it was a huge success. Poropra had managed to poach several of Handel's former singers, including Senesino, Montagnana and Cuzzoni, to perform, and he also, in later years, was able to lure Farinelli and Caffarelli, his former students, to England as well. Francesco Maria Veracini was another composer invited by the company. He produced many orchestral compositions, and a few not-so-hot operas. Even Johann Adolf Hasse had been approached to take up a post, though according to Julie Anne Sadie's "Companion to Baroque Music", Hasse: "declined, perhaps partly out of deference to Handel, whom he had met in 1729." (I knew there was a reason I liked Hasse so much) Anyway, Porpora eventually left for Venice in 1736, the Opera of the Nobility went into bankruptcy, and it was dissolved in 1737.
Bartoli's latest few projects have all been called "historically informed" (take for instance the Sacrificium and Malibran projects, or the current productions of Belini's Norma) and "Handel and his Rivals" is no different. One nice touch was her decision to start the concert with the Overture to, and arias from, the opera Rinaldo. Handel's first opera for the English public, Rinaldo premiered in London on 24 Feburary 1711, featuring two of the leading castrati of the age, the famous Nicolo Grimaldi, and Valentino Urbani. It contains arias such as "Lascia ch'io pianga", "Venti, turbini" and "Cara sposa". Rinaldo was a huge success, and prompted Handel to decide (in 1712) to stay in England permanently (he even applied for naturalisation in 1727).
The concert itself almost began with a disaster, as the violin principal, Julia Schroder, almost ended up on the floor after tripping on her platform. Luckily it was only her papers that went flying! After a rousing performance of the Rinaldo Overture by the Basel Chamber Orchestra, Ms Bartoli bounded on stage in a stunning black, figure-hugging dress, complete with sparkly bracelet, earrings and tiara, and gigantic heals. It was a perfect combination for her first number, also from Rinaldo: the sorceress Armida's "Furie terribili". Accompanied by a wind machine, and metal sheet (which a young man dressed in black thwacked about to produce the thunderclaps), Bartoli wowed the audience with this firecracker of an opener. With its Furioso speed marking, "Furie terribili" is the sorceress Armida's call to her furies to come to her, and trail terror in her wake. Bartoli performed perfectly, raging at the audience, scowling at the poor man thwacking the metal sheet, and all the while subtly conducting the orchestra with a look or gesture. It was a formidable opener, which in the hands of a lesser artist could have gone horribly wrong. For Bartoli though it set the scene for what was to be a powerful concert.
Next up was was "Dunque i Lacci... Ah! crudel", also from Rinaldo. Here Armida is torn between loving her handsome captive, and wanting her furies to "Arise... and discover new types of pain and punishment". Nice! The accompanied recitative "Dunque i Lacci" sets the scene perfectly, with the orchestra moving between long held notes and fiery bursts of semiquaver rumblings. Key to the introduction of the aria is the phrase "Ah, my feeble heart, can you shelter a traitor still?" It is this quandary around which the aria "Ah! crudel" revolves, with its mournful, pining A section, and its fast, furious B section. It is a perfect aria for Bartoli, as it contrasts her outstanding pianissimo and breath control with her machine-gun coloratura. A copy of the score is available here.
The best example of Bartoli's beautiful, well-supported pianissimo, combined with almost preternatural breath control, came in the form of Alcina's aria "Ah! mio cor!" Having already heard this aria recently in a concert with Inga Kalna singing the role of Alcina only a few days before, I was interested to see how the two would compare and contrast. Where Kalna was regal and reserved, Bartoli was passionate and emotive. This is not to criticize either, just to highlight how two very different approaches can be equally enjoyable. Bartoli's performance creates a floating feeling, seemingly everlasting, which draws the senses within the periphery of her aura, and holds the concentration with every tiny nuance of voice or gesture. For me, this ability even outweighs her famed coloratura. (I remember the first time I experienced this skill of hers was when she sang "Sposa, non mi conosci" as a part of the Sacrificium concert) Judging by the applause, "Ah! moi cor" was the highlight of the first half. A copy of the score can be seen here.
The other three first-half offerings from Bartoli were showcases for her lightning speed. The first, "Scherza in mar" from Lotario, is a fiery, upbeat aria, with lots of coloratura, octave leaps and drops, and many movements through the registers. It is the statement of refusal by Adelaide, the widowed Queen of Italy, as she stands resolute against any attempt by Berengario and Matilda to marry her to their son. "Scherza in mar" proves that vocal fireworks and good melodic writing can go hand in hand. The aria really suited Bartoli's voice, and plays to her ability to move across the extremes of her range with ease and fluidity. A copy of the score can be seen here.
Singing of her love for Teseo, in the opera of the same name, poor Agilea sings the aria "Ah, che sol per Teseo... M'adora l'idol mio", as Teseo's father announces that he himself will marry her. Bartoli uses the aria to show just how super-speed coloratura should be done, while performing melismatic duets with the oboe. (A copy of the score can be seen here.) In the last aria of the first-half, "Mi deride... Destero dall'empia Dite" from Amadigi di Gaula, Bartoli sings the sorceress Melissa's rage aria. With lyrics such as "I will raise every fury from vilest Hell to wage war on you, cruel traitors," and with a duet for oboe and trumpet, "Destero" is a real firecracker of an aria. With flashing eyes and wild interpolated ornamentation, Bartoli commanded the stage, except for a rather humourous moment when the oboe and trumpet got the better of her! (A copy of the score can be seen here.) Both arias have a high tessatura, staying in soprano territory the majority of the time.
The token music from Handel's rivals came from Nicola Porpora (Overtures from Il Gedeone, and from Perdono, amata Nice) and Francesco Maria Veracini (Ouverture No. 6 in G minor). On the basis of the Veracini, it is easy to see why the Opera of the Nobility fell into bankrupcy. While the Basel Chamber Orchestra tried their best to make this piece of music interesting, I have to admit that it didn't really do much for me. The two Porpora items were much better, however, and admirably performed. In the first piece, the overture to Il Gedeone, the staccato rhythm sounded almost Purcellian (I'm thinking here of the "Cold Song" from King Arthur), while the second had a renassaince feel to it (perhaps it was just me) and was spiced up by rhythmic foot stamping from the Orchestra.
After the interval, the program focused on my favourite, and arguably the greatest, of Handel's operas: Giulio Cesare. Singing with Argentinian countertenor Franco Fagioli, who sang a selection from the role of Cesare, Bartoli performed three arias attributed to Cleopatra. It was a very well balanced partnership, with Bartoli's light, supple voice perfectly capturing the character of the playful and seductive Cleopatra, and Fagioli's well produced countertenor moving seamlessly into the modal voice to manage the more "alto" parts of Cesare's arias. I first heard 29 year old Fagioli in a recording of Mozart's "Venga pur", which used to be on YouTube, and was very impressed. His voice has matured well, and he is now ready to take on the harder Handelian roles.
Fagioli's first offering, the countertenor calling-card "Va Tacito e nascosto", was very well performed. Many countertenors perform this aria with a mixture of mid-voice hoots, and a croaky or non-existant lower range. Fagioli's voice was well blended, forceful, masculine, and effective throughout the range. Easily hitting high F and above. His "Al lampo dell'armi" was sensational, with effortless coloratura and sustained phrasing, though on the first melisma he shot off so fast he almost overtook the orchestra! His final run upto high F was explosive, and earned him prolonged applause. The final aria, "Aure, deh, per pieta" was luscious and full, beautifully phrased with wonderful legato singing. On the basis of this performance, Fagioli is heading to join the countertenor royalty.
Bartoli's three arias were expertly chosen to show the full emotional range of Handel's Cleopatra. First was the sensuous "V'adoro, pupille", the aria Cleopatra sings to seduce Cesare. Bartoli used her girly charm to the full, producing a characterisation more coquettish than overtly sexual. Her legato and phrasing produced extra tension in the performance, with delicate vocal ornamentation and physical gestures combining to entice the audience. The beautiful and melancholy "Se pieta" was next, and here we saw a much deeper Cleopatra. Full of loss and despair, Bartoli used her supreme breath control and pianissimo to devastating effect. The aria was genuinely moving, leaving a couple of people near me with glistening eyes. (To read my analysis of "Se pieta", click here). Finally, Bartoli gave us the joyous "Da tempeste". If there was ever a calling card for Baroque sopranos (or high mezzos) it is this. The sheer joy with which Bartoli performed saturated the hall, earning her a rousing applause. The pair ended with the duet "Piu amabile", which closed the second half perfectly. A copy of the score can be seen here.
As an encore, Fagioli reprised "Va Tacito", with extra improvisation for the excellent horn player Glen Borling, and coloratura running from low F to high A (over two octaves). The blend in Fagioli's voice has been so well produced, that the same tonal quality ran throughout the full range. Bartoli decided to match Fagioli's covering of Senesino's arias by singing Farinelli's "Son Qual Nave". Written by Farinelli's brother, Riccardo Broschi, the aria is a showcase for Farinelli's vocal skills (which judging by the aria must have been prodigious). The first phrase lasted nearly 30 seconds, and had Bartoli performing no less than five messa di voce's! FIVE!! She had to stop before carrying on as we the audience whooped and cheered. By the time she finished several audience members were on their feet. The final encore was a duet, finishing as the concert started with Rinaldo. The pair sang a beautiful rendition "Scherzano sul tuo volto", their voices intertwining like liquid silver. Bartoli and Fagioli were given a standing ovation by myself and many of the audience - it was well earned.
In contrasting Handel with his rivals, Ms Bartoli succeeded in showing us that Handel had no rivals; like Ms Bartoli herself.