Cecilia Bartoli / Sergio Ciomei "Soirée Rossiniana" - Barbican, 17 December 2008
Rossini La regata veneziana - Three songs in Venetian dialect; Bellini L’Abbandono, Il fervido desiderio, Vaga Luna, La Farfalletta, Dolente immagine, Malinconia, ninfa gentile, Ma rendi pur contento; Rossini Or che di fiori adorno, Beltà crudele, Canzonetta spagnuola, La danza; Donizetti Il barcaiolo, Amore e morte, La conocchia, Me voglio fà‘na casa; Rossini Ariette à l’ancienne, L’Orpheline du Tyrol, La grande coquette; Viardot Havanaise, Hai luli!; García Yo que soy contrabandista; Malibran Rataplan
Encores: Ernesto de Curtis Ti voglio tanto bene; Montsalvatge Canto Negro; Ernesto de Curtis Non ti scordar di me
This is fast becoming a regular annual date. If it's December, it must be Cecilia Bartoli time at the Barbican.
With no new album to promote this year, she chose instead a selection of salon music that she's sung for years. Her frocks too were old favourites - for the second half the thrifty Ceci wore the same red dress as last year, and before the break the same design in blue. And why not? Getting more from ur couture is a lesson every diva should learn in these creditcrunchy times.
Her accompaniment was economical as well - just the sweet cuddly pianist Sergio Ciomei. Did she bring her own sandwiches too? A flourish of twinkly diamonds proved she's hardly down to her last pennies though.
The songs were drawn largely from Rossini's Péchés de vieillesse, a huge collection of piano and vocal music he wrote after retiring from opera. (The piano works too will surprise anyone who thinks they 'know' Rossini - many have moments of greater 'orchestral' invention than the often hurriedly-written operas). Mr and Mrs Rossini hosted sparkling soirées where they would regale lucky guests with this music in a convivial atmosphere of food, drink and song.
The songs may not be of the very first rank: as with bel canto opera, the texts often let them down and the harmonic progression can be pedestrian. But La Ceci treated every one like a favourite child, with love and tenderness, its character proudly displayed, its flaws utterly denied. Beaming at the audience, sensitive to every slight lapse in attention, every degree of response, she radiated the sheer joy of performing.
The electrifying coloratura of songs like La farfalletta and the tarantella La danza predictably generated the most ecstatic audience response. Cecilia Bartoli still has no peer in this - the grace, the agility, the effortlessness are beyond mere mortals.
But in dramatic narrative like the three songs of La regata veneziana, where a gondolier's girlfriend urges him to race victory, she did more - totally inhabiting the songs - she was that girl at the canalside, egging him on. And all without any unmusical effects - the line was beautiful and musically shaped.
Humour is perhaps her greatest strength. Not many classical musicians can make songs funny - even when they're written with that purpose in mind. But La Ceci's naturally sunny personality combines with wit and timing to devastating effect. Could there be anything sillier than the rolled Rs of Malibran's Rataplan? And could anyone else make them sound like the crowning peak of comedic genius?
Although she (sweetly) checked her running order with a piano-top copy of the same programme that was handed out free to the audience, her preparation was immaculate, and made everything sound like the innovation of a moment. As Sir John Tomlinson once said about rehearsing, "get it right until you can't get it wrong" and anything is possible.
Anyone who's ever nit-picked her recordings needs to get out more. Heard live, her charisma and spontaneous joy and embedded musicality create an experience 1000% greater than any recording. She simply personifies the argument that in the face of CDs, DVDs, films, downloads, streaming, whatever - live performance will never die.