Cecilia Bartoli strode onstage at Symphony Hall yesterday with a two- or three-yard satin train sweeping behind her emerald gown. Her arms swinging, she looked ready for business, like a prizefighter entering the ring.
The Italian mezzo's business this time was to perform 13 arias, 10 of them from her latest best-selling album for Decca, ''Opera Proibita," music written in Rome by Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Antonio Caldara during the period early in the 18th century when public performances of opera were banned for political or religious reasons. Composers responded to the crisis by producing highly operatic oratorios on religious themes -- a solution Handel would remember decades later in London, when the money for opera ran out.
The first two arias presented the two extremes of the program. A brilliant Scarlatti piece with trumpets came first. Bartoli flung out irridescent sprays of notes like a dog shaking off his bath. No disrespect intended -- she's a natural phenomenon. This was followed by a slow, weeping aria by Caldara that displayed Bartoli's Damson plum timbre, her prodigious span of breath, her mastery of ornamentation, dynamics, and echo effects. Her voice is not large, but the emotional wallop it delivers is.
She was expertly abetted by the Orchestra La Scintilla from the Zurich Opera. Led by its Cleveland-born concertmaster, Ada Pesch, this group plays with a grounded energy comparable to Bartoli's, and unlike many early-instrument bands, it is not afraid to play slowly or pianissimo.
In later virtuoso coloratura arias, Bartoli upped the ante, mostly by widening the range (up to an easily produced high D) and increasing the number of notes she took on one breath. If the singer has a flaw, it is that these bravura arias wind up sounding interchangeable because she almost always delivers them at the same tempo. It is in her pliant, affecting delivery of slow music like Handel's ''Lascia la spina" that Bartoli is incomparable. She is also irresistible in lilting, pastoral pieces, where the appeal lies in the swerve she brings to melody, the charming playfulness she brings to text.
The applause was tremendous and Bartoli surrendered four encores -- the melody by Bononcini that became world famous as ''Handel's Largo," a section of Cleopatra's dazzling final aria from Handel's ''Giulio Cesare," a delightful Scarlatti duet with sopranino recorder, and a reprise of the final section of the last number on the official program, an aria from Handel's ''Resurrection."