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International Record Review - (12/2012)
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Reviewer:  Hugh Canning

Cecilia Bartoli Productions Inc. (also known as Decca) has gone into overdrive with this latest unearthing of lost treasures of Baroque opera by Agostino Steffani. A startling portrait of a bald-headed Bartoli, dressed as a priest (!) and brandishing a crucifix in conscious parody of the cult film The Exorcist glares out from the cover and the pictures inside seem linked to several other items of ‘merchandise’, a ‘cinematic vision of the album directed by Olivier Simonnet’ - due out on DVD and Blu-ray shortly - ‘MISSION: The Game on iPad’ and a related novel by Bartoli fan Donna Leon — she of the Agatha Christie like Inspector Brunetti mysteries set in and around Venice — entitled The Jewels of Paradise, ‘inspired by Cecilia Bartoli’s ... Mission’.

Has a classical record ever had such multi media back-up as this before? I doubt it, but it is a tribute to the Italian mezzo-soprano’s strategic thinking, as well as her now-famous artistic curiosity, in her mission to bring us the work of this little-known Italian composer, whose life and times (1654-1728) straddled the operatic peaks of both Francesco Cavalli (1628-76) and George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Handel was a junior musician at the court of Hanover during Steffani‘s engagement as court composer and part-time diplomatist during a period of political uncertainty and turbulence in European history. Steffani seems to have been a player in the power-brokering after the outcome of the Spanish succession and one of the booklet notes imply that he acted as a spy for the Hanover court in Munich and Brussels in its attempt to make the Duke of Hanover an Elector of the Holy Roman Emperor. As a Catholic employee of a Protestant ruler his post required him to produce no liturgical music — he was well placed to smooth over religious differences between the Duchy, the Empire and the Vatican.

A fascinating life, then, but, on the evidence of ‘Mission’, a more than considerable musical talent, too. Bartoli certainly can’t claim to have ‘discovered’ Steffani, as she somewhat rashly did in the case of operatic Vivaldi when her first single composer ‘concept’ album appeared. I have long treasured an old Harmonia Mundi disc devoted to Steffani’s chamber duets, the genre for which he is given most credit in his Grove entry, and of which Handel is known to have possessed several examples (they were colleagues at the Hanover court until Handel took leave for London in 1710). Then, two years ago, the Royal Opera imported a Schwetzingen production of Steffani ‘s Niobe to fill in for the company’s tour to Japan, and it proved a revelation, not only as a piece of theatre certainly a halfway-house between Cavalli and the ‘Venetian’ Handel of Agrippina in terms of style but as a score full of ravishing highlights.

It surely can be no coincidence that the largest number of Bartoli’s selection from a single opera come from Niobe, regina di Tebe (the arrogant mythological queen who compared her wisdom to that of the goddess Athene, who punished her by slaughtering her children), written for the Munich court in 1688. For the Baroque era, Niobe symbolized the grieving mother, but the purpose of the opera was to warn its aristocratic patrons of the dangers of arrogance and the human costs of war. Bartoli seizes the opportunity presented by this remarkable work to sing solos for two different characters, the titular Theban Queen, and her admirer and ally Amphion (Anfione), and duets with Philippe Jaroussky as both Amphion and her enemy Creon (Creonte). Anfione’s ‘Dal mio petto’, with its sinuous chromatic melisma on the word ‘pianti’ (‘tears’) is the kind of lamenting aria with which Handel was later to hit his audiences in the solar plexus in his London operas — think of Rinaldo’s ‘Cara sposa’ — and it is done arrestingly here by Bartoli, her timbre limpid, her line an immaculate cantabile, yet one that never obscures the words or their meaning. The sadness she conveys here is spellbinding and she repeats the feat in Niobe’s stark, lute-accompanied (Rosario Conte) arioso, ‘Amami, e vederai’ (‘Love me and you will see’), although teasing touch of sensuality is perceptible here.

I can’t think of another singer who brings such variety of colour, nuance and pathos to slow numbers of this kind. The album is packed with ‘paradisical jewels’ in this mould: the ravishing duets for Niobe and Creonte, Niobe and Anfione, Enea (Aeneas) and Lavinia from I trionfi delfato (‘The Triumphs of Fate’), and Sabina‘s heart-stopping ‘Palpitanti sfere belle’ (‘Beautiful, palpitating spheres’) — a gorgeous lullaby over her recumbent lover which fizzles out, like Arnalta’s comparable solo in The Coronation of Poppea, as its addressee fails asleep. For these tracks alone - the majority indeed — the disc is a must-buy for ail lovers of Baroque opera, and they certainly whet the appetite for more Steffani, including complete operas a Niobe is due from the Boston Early Music Festival on CPO in the near future on disc.

Bartoli ‘s performance of the more bravura numbers most of them of a military persuasion with splendid arrays of trumpets, horns and drums and, in one case, the cannon shots of war is more questionable, though the music is certainly exhilarating as played by Diego Fasolis’s brilliant Barocchisti ensemble. I suppose one could argue that the ‘machine gun’ technique that passes for coloratura in Bartoli‘s performances of virtuoso arias is appropriate to the music. It is undoubtedly energetic and exciting, but she now pushes her voice so mercilessly that the tone sounds forced, coarse and shrill. Vocal fireworks have always been essential weapons in the Bartoli armoury, but they are now sounding rusty. As her technical fluency has become impaired, she increasingly fails back on arty mannerism - Rotrude’s ‘Più non v’ascondo’ (‘I hide my affections from you no longer’) from Tassilone, sounds impossibly knowing and cute — as she pecks at the notes in the manner of late Schwarzkopf singing Wolf. As with Schwarzkopf, one is always aware of the intelligence behind the idea, but one of the great features of early Bartoli was her apparent spontaneity. That has largely disappeared.

I don’t want to end on a negative note, as there is much to admire and even love here. Whatever else, Bartoli has done Steffani an incalculable service by bringing his beautiful music to the widest possible audience. ‘Mission’ is in every sense a collector’s item.

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