Everybody loves Cecilia Bartoli and some people love her so much that they have traveled to hear her in every city on her current American tour. And who could blame them? The Italian mezzo-soprano is irresistible on nearly every count. There's the port-wine beauty of her voice, secure over more than two octaves, right up to a sun-struck high D. There's the down-to-earth glamour of her person, her high spirits, her generosity toward onstage colleagues. There's the spirit of musical adventure that has led her to investigate music by Vivaldi, Gluck and Antonio Salieri that no one has sung for centuries.
And when she sings slow music, she is as eloquent as any singer of whom we have any record -- she shapes the line like a great string player, ornamenting it with elegance, coloring it with an eloquent personal responsiveness to the words.
She can romp through comic music, make high tragedy feel personal. Then there's that virtuoso coloratura technique -- she can leap an octave and a half in a single bound and sing through more than two dozen rapid notes in a single breath. This is about the only controversial aspect of her work. She seems to be shaking all those sparkling notes off her body, like a sleek animal that has just swum across a river; today only Renee Fleming communicates a comparable joy in the physical act of singing.
But there is also something mechanical about it -- all of the coloratura emerges at pretty much the same tempo, clicking by like the second hand on a quartz-powered watch. It doesn't express much beyond "this is championship vocalism."
Bartoli began with arias by Vivaldi and Gluck, the latter, from "Il Parnaso confuso," a ravishing serenade accompanied by plucked strings. Then came eight arias by Salieri, the dominant figure in the musical life of Vienna in Mozart's time. He proves to be an immensely skilled and resourceful composer with many tricks of harmony up his sleeve, and a gift for ingenious transformations of standard musical forms. An aria from "La fiera di Venezia" has instrumental parts for flute and oboe as elaborate as the ones in Constanze's famous aria in Mozart's "The Abduction From the Seraglio" and they were handsomely played by Lisa Beznosiuk and Anthony Robson.
The problem with Salieri for modern listeners is that at his considerable best he reminds us of things Mozart did even better. But brava to Bartoli for rescuing a bit of musical history and making it so vividly alive.
Britain's superb period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment -- suave strings, pungent winds and brass -- proved a first-rate collaborator, with concertmaster Alison Bury serving as conductor, with occasional signals from the singer. The orchestra also played two entertaining Salieri overtures and some variations on "La folia di Spagna" as brilliant as the famous ones for piano by Liszt. One heard complaints that Bartoli spent too much time offstage, but she did sing the equivalent of at least two full Rossini roles.
The diva returned for two encores, a dazzler by Haydn and an impish comic turn by Salieri, before she blew a kiss to the delirious crowd and waved goodbye. It was 10:30 but her duties were not yet over -- she agreed to sign copies of her new CD in the annex, and most of the audience, reluctant to leave her, headed that way.