Cecilia Bartoli - Barbican, 9 December 2010
On a cold, damp winter's night with the Barbican totally bereft of sandwiches (again), half its ladies loos out of action (still) and bar staff who chuck ice into into your essential V&T without even asking - that's when you need Cecilia Bartoli, reliable bearer of warmth and sunshine and seasonal cheer.
Her December Barbican visits are now a regular fixture, selling out instantly, months in advance. I saw a few familiar faces in the audience. There are fans who visit every year from as far away as Glasgow to bask in her glow. No Dame Viv and no starry supporters this time round, but Barbican supremo Sir Nicholas Kenyon (who should by rights have had his hands down a u-bend - or at least buttering a few rolls) couldn't keep away.
The billing was 'Handel and his Rivals', but the latter were restricted to a couple of brief novelty overtures from Veracini and Porpora. Apart from giving La Ceci a few moments backstage to loosen her breathtaking stays and rest her five inch heels, all they did was prove what we already knew, that Handel was by far the superior composer. And British! Never a bad choice for a London date.
She strode on in elegant strapless black, diamonds sparkling at wrist and ear. An unusually subdued choice for the highway queen perhaps, but as with her repertoire, she knows exactly what suits her and displays her assets to advantage.
Virtuoso opening numbers from Rinaldo and Lotario proved a little ambitious for a voice not yet fully warmed-up. Ah, mio cor from Alcina was a different matter. The voice may be slender but Cecilia can bend and twist and colour it to suggest everything from fury to the darkest despair. Handel's genius for characterisation never wastes notes. Cecilia's fearlessly brilliant coloratura embodied a woman literally shaking with rage then a moment later she was heaving with grief in the softest of pianissimos.
I do sort of understand where Bartoli's critics are coming from. When her material isn't up to the same standard as her abilities, her vocal contortions and idiosyncratic technique can seem mannered, a merely athletic display. But when music is married so precisely to meaning as it is in Handel's greatest music, then no-one can reveal the psychological nuance quite like la Ceci with her cornucopia of vocal tricks.
But that's the serious side. The other is the sheer infectious joy radiating around the Barbican as she relished the bubbling Ah, che sol from Teseo.
She shared the second half's selection from Giulio Cesare with pint-sized countertenor Franco Fagoli, a sweet-voiced Caesar to her imperious Cleopatra. La Ceci didn't show us her asp, but the rest of her ample goods were on display in a Mae West lace corset and clinging satin skirt. She was as generous with Fagoli as she was with the Kammerorchester Basel, the interplay between vocalist and instrumentalist highlighted as oboe and trumpet stepped up to the front of the stage for their obbligato turn.
(Apologies for the Marge Simpson skin tones in most of the photos below - I think the Barbican lighting may have been to blame)
**UPDATE** - scroll down to the bottom of the page for Kyoko's fantastic video of the curtain call!
The full Programme:
Handel Ouverture from Rinaldo
Handel 'Furie terribili' from Rinaldo
Handel ' Dunque i lacci… Ah, crudele' from Rinaldo
Handel ' Scherza in mar' from Lotario
Veracini Ouverture No 6 in G minor - Allegro
Handel ' Ah, mio cor', from Alcina
Porpora Ouvertures from Cantatas Gedeone' and 'Perdono, amata Nice - Adagio – Spiritoso andante – Allegro
Handel ' Ah, che sol per te, Teseo… M’adora l’idol mio' from Teseo
Handel ' Mi deride… Desterò dall’empia Dite' from Amadigi
Handel Scenes from “Giulio Cesare in Egitto”
' Va tacito e nascosto'
Sinfonia 'Il Parnasso'
' Al lampo dell’armi'
Che sento, o dio… Se pietà'
'Dell’ondoso periglio… Aure, per pieta'
'Caro!... Bella!... Più amabile beltà'
And here's a top quality video of the curtain call, shot by Kyoko - from the front row!