Friday, March 06, 2009

The incomparable

As one may remember, the Met was supposed to have done Bellini's La Sonnambula at the beginning of this decade -- for superstar mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. That fell through, apparently for cast and director issues, and thus the events of this Monday and Tuesday: Sonnambula at the Met, in a production far from anything Robert Carsen or Olivier Tambosi would have dreamed up, followed by Bartoli at Carnegie, in one of the occasional sold-out one-woman-shows that have been the limit of her New York appearances since then.

Of course, it's not just that Bartoli hasn't appeared at the Met in over ten years: she rarely appears in staged opera at all outside the friendly confines of Zurich. Its small house suits her, conditions and colleagues are to her liking -- why not? To the record-buying public it makes little difference: new releases continue as ever, and her name is still ubiquitous. But the deprived operagoer might be forgiven for wondering how much Bartoli is preserving her rare commercial status by restricting herself to projects in which her work literally cannot be compared. Meanwhile the program for this particular tour does invite comparison... to one of the legendary divas of yore, Maria Malibran (1808-1836).

For the occasion Bartoli brought Zurich's house with her, in the form of its "La Scintilla" HIP orchestra. In accompaniments and interspersed instrumental pieces they played with an admirable liveliness, though (as is generally the case), the efficient precision they offer is more of a modernist than "historical" phenomenon. Concertmaster/leader Ada Pesch shone in her playing of a violin concerto movement by Malibran's second husband, but I found an earlier cello obbligato rather too much revealing the color limitations of "historical" tone.

What, then, of Bartoli herself? Unfortunately, it's apparent that she has good reason for avoiding Met-sized houses: her voice doesn't scale well. It's quite audible in Carnegie Hall's ample space, but she can't really open up the sound past mf for a climax, making for an odd sort of real-life "clipping" effect. And the expressive range of her tone seems similarly compressed, perhaps from being near her limits of volume and carrying power. She used piano and pianissimo effects well, of course, but even these did not tell as they might against a stronger basic sound.

Her virtues, too, were unmistakable: audience command, solid and confident musicianship, and an unshakable technique that stays balanced and buoyant no matter how many divisions she (or the composer) happily piles on. But they told best in the most familiar piece -- Cenerentola's "Non piu mesta", which she in fact sang twice, once as an encore and even freer in elaboration. The more obscure Malibran-related selections sat well neither for Bartoli's voice (taxed by the higher-lying climaxes) nor her interpretive preferences (lying opposite the more overtly "dramatic" thrills Malibran apparently commanded). Commendable but hardly thrilling.

Perhaps the absence of drama hurt. It's certainly valuable for someone of Bartoli's fame to bring less familiar music to light on record and in concert, but I don't think it coincidence that she came most to life in a signature stage role's music. She has been singing the Malibran stuff for a while now, but it feels still not yet lived-in: star concerts and scholarship (and even hometown productions) have nothing on the risk of conventional opera performance. It may be that Bartoli's narrowly circumscribed career is stifling her growth...

But I certainly wouldn't criticize her final encore: after the long diet of bel canto, she sang a touching and expressive "Non ti scordar di me", more happily and colorfully shaded than most of what had come before. She knows well how to receive -- and, perhaps, return -- an audience's love.

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In Zurich's small space, perhaps Bartoli is incomparably the greatest. Here, well... Not to be too glib, but her best work was in "Non piu mesta", and Joyce DiDonato did it better just a few weeks ago.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.