Bay Arias: Bartoli Sings Once More, With Feeling

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When I mentioned to my mother, who knows a little about singing and a lot about beer, that I would be reviewing mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli's Cal Performances recital, she asked if one might describe a singer's voice as chewy, or hoppy, or perhaps as having a good nose. Although none of these is appropriate to Bartoli's performance, the Italian singer's voice was unquestionably intoxicating.

I was thrilled to attend the concert, as I have been awed and inspired by Bartoli's rich and expressive voice since the late ‘90s. She is one of today's premier operatic artists, having made her West Coast debut to critical acclaim over a decade ago at Berkeley's own Zellerbach Hall, when she was still relatively unknown in America. Two of her most recent recordings received Grammy awards, as did two of her earlier albums.

She sang on Sunday to a packed house, and for more than two hours after the performance ended, a line of fans trailed around the mezzanine and down the stairs to the lobby, waiting to get the diva's autograph.

The program consisted of 18 songs in Italian, French and Spanish divided into six segments, plus four encores. Bartoli often brought her audience to laughter as well as applause; she clearly enjoyed what she was singing and was willing and able to share her enjoyment with the audience. Her rendition of Rossini's "L'Orpheline du Tyrol" turned runs of notes into yodels and echoes, which was eminently suitable to the aria and a brilliant interpretation of the setting. The fifth segment of the concert summoned a whole menagerie of insects to the stage simply through Bartoli's vocal technique: she gave the ladybug of Bizet's "La coccinelle" its own thin, reedy voice, and the butterfly of the same composer's "Tarantelle" clearly flapped its wings in the flutters of the notes. This was unquestionably the most lively set of the concert, and Bartoli's accompanist, Sergio Ciomei, even handed her a pair of castanets before the last aria, which she slipped over her hands and proceeded to use with great skill.

Bartoli's rapport with Ciomei was exceptional, as demonstrated when she casually leaned on the piano during Donizetti's "Me voglio fa ‘na casa" to melodramatically and spontaneously slow down the "tralla la la"s of the second verse, Ciomei following her with practiced expertise. Ciomei was an excellent accompanist for her, his enthusiasm and love for the pieces clearly matching Bartoli's own.

The concert was an unmitigated triumph, a fact that was emphasized by the willingness of her adoring audience to wait in Zellerbach Hall amidst rumbling stomachs and mutters of sore feet, clutching programs and copies of her newest recording, with only the promise of an autograph to sustain them. Bartoli will undoubtedly receive a similar response the next time she returns to sing in the Bay Area, and we can only hope that there will not be another desolate three-year stretch before this day arrives.


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