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Maria
Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo soprano; Orchestra La Scintilla, Adam Fischer, conductor
Arias by Giovanni Pacini (2), GiuseppiPersiani, Felix Mendelssohn, Manuel Garcia (2), Vincenzo Bellini (3), Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Maria Malibran (2), Jacques Halévy, and Lauro Rossi.
Review By Joe Milicia
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  The sensationally gifted mezzo Cecilia Bartoli has been recording concept albums for some time now — CDs that go far beyond the typical "...Sings French Opera!" Among her signal successes for the Decca/London label have been CDs devoted to the long-neglected music of Salieri and Gluck, and one to baroque music written to sneak past prohibitions by the papal court (this last CD being the one with the odd cover photo of Bartoli wading through the Trevi Fountain à la Anita Ekberg). Her 2007 CD Maria goes yet a stage further in being a "concept": an album devoted to music sung by or at least written for the Romantic-age diva Maria Malibran. With nearly a full 80 minutes of music, the CD includes three familiar arias by Bellini that are normally performed by sopranos, plus fascinating rarities by Mendelssohn and Hummel and a couple of numbers written by Malibran herself — altogether, eight world premiere recordings out of 14 arias and "scenas." There are several editions of this recording, one with a behind-the-scenes DVD; my copy, just the CD at regular price, has the disc inserted in a 150-page handsomely-designed hardbound booklet.

Bartoli's instantly recognizable timbre and style of singing may not be for every taste, just as Elizabeth Schwarzkopf did not please everyone. That is, some listeners have found her to "over-act" or over-interpret each note or to be self-indulgent in her virtuosity. But others are thrilled precisely by what may be called her commitment to drama and display of undeniably astonishing vocal gifts, including great agility in bravura passages, perfect trills, tenderness in lyric passages, and a rich lower register combined with the ability to soar into soprano range. Evidently Maria Malibran had a basically mezzo vocal range as well, considering her repertoire — a point argued by Bartoli and musicologist Martin Heimgartner in the extensive booklet notes — and as is made obvious by the performances themselves of "Maria's" music.

Malibran was a part of a musical dynasty that included her father, the Spanish tenor, composer and impresario Manuel Garcia (Rossini's first Almaviva), and her younger sister Pauline Viardot, whose long career is too spectacular to summarize here. During her own short career (she died at 28), Malibrian was hugely admired by Rossini, Bellini and Chopin among others, and was the toast of England (where she debuted as Rosina and later sang Beethoven's Fidelio in English), New York (where at 17 she was Zerlina in the American premiere of Don Giovanni, with her father singing the Don as a tenor and Lorenzo da Ponte in attendance), and western Europe.

Decca and Bartoli order the program for maximum contrast of numbers, but to survey the album overall I will suggest four groupings. First is music by Garcia and Malibran themselves. Garcia's "greatest hit" in his lifetime was a flamenco-style smuggler's song, "Yoque soy contrabandista," which Bartoli tosses off with accompaniment by castanets, guitar and flamenco clappers. A grander undertaking is a scene with chorus from the opera La figliadell'aria, written for Malibran and premiered in New York in 1826. Malibran must have been a formidable singer indeed at 17 or 18 to manage the spectacular vocal cascades with prominent low notes, and plenty of dramatic swagger as the character Semiramide declares herself "queen and lover, armed with my fury" to bring death to a tyrant and liberty to her country. It's musically satisfying as well as an exciting display piece.

The Malibran songs are also highly contrasting. First is "Rataplan," one of those jaunty drummer's ditties, this one (in French) notable especially for lengthy rolling of the r's — it must be a hilarious encore piece performed live. Second is an aria Malibran used as a substitution for Adina's last aria in Donizetti's L'elisird'amore when she played the role at La Scala in 1835. One can only imagine the outrage today over such a "maiming" of Donizetti's comic masterpiece, but at the time, a Milan review praised Malibran for "spicing up" the composer's "elixir" with a "new and delicious flavor." In any case, the aria is perfectly charming, with its tender slow section and perky finale, and its display of both high and low registers.

The items by German/Austrian composers (both in Italian) are also of great interest. Mendelssohn wrote Infelice, a scene for voice, violin obbligato and orchestra, for the London Philharmonic Society, evidently for Malibran and the concert violinist Charles de Bériot, her lover and later second husband, though they never performed it. Based on a text by Metastasio, the 12-minute scene features a standard pattern of recitative ("The traitor left me!"), Adagio ("Ah, for the golden age of love!"), and agitated Allegro ("Yet hope turns to torment!"), but sounds thoroughly Mendelssohnian in both its tender and stormy moments. Decca, following its long tradition of luxury cameos, provides a rich-toned Maxim Vengerov for the duet with Bartoli.

Hummel's Tyrolian Air With Variations--written for, dedicated to and premiered by Malibran in 1830 — is pure fun. The Alpine waltz with slow and fast variations calls for a bit of yodeling  (a "Yodeling Coach" is listed in the CD credits) as well as dazzling virtuosity, which Bartoli carries off  with deadpan humor.

A third category of works on the program is comprised of arias by bel canto composers beyond the triumvirate of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Bartoli chooses arias from three operas written for Malibran for Naples premieres, plus a finale to Rossini's Tancredi written by Giovanni Pacini as a display piece for her in this heroic trouser role. (As if Rossini didn't display enough!) I found myself enjoying equally the numbers from Pacini's Irene, or The Siege of Messina (intensely dramatic), Giuseppe Persiani's Ines de Castro (doleful, with harp accompaniment), and Lauro Rossi's Amelia, or Eight Years of Constancy (the cheerful finale). In each case, what makes the aria special is not some technical hurdle leaped by Bartoli or even her emotional commitment but her sense of melodic line, convincing us that this is good, memorable music. One might include one other piece in this grouping: from Clari, an Italian opera written by the Frenchman Jacques Halévy (famous for La Juive), the aria featuring a lovely introduction for French horns and violins.

Finally we have a trio of famous scenes from Bellini operas. The novelty here is that all of this music is nowadays thought by the public to belong to high sopranos — Sutherland and Callas, perhaps most famously, not to mention great voices before and after them. So it is fascinating to hear the familiar arias as Malibran presumably performed them — to be sure, with the lower tuning (A = 430 rather than today's 440) of her day. Though the part of Amina in La sonnambula was written for Giuditta Pasta, it became one of Malibran's signature roles; Bartoli gives us the finale — its tearful lament followed by a jubilant cabaletta — with Malibran's own rich embellishments of the second verse of the cabaletta. We are also given the Mad Scene from I puritani, in a version written for Malibran to perform in Naples , though a contractual dispute denied her the chance. Here I found Bartoli's flawless renditions of the cabaletta's series of downward-running scales especially admirable.

Finally, most famous of all (and the finale of the CD recital), we have "Casta diva" from Norma. Taking an especially slow tempo and scrupulously following the pianissimo marking, Bartoli gives a hushed, delicate rendition of the aria. It doesn't soar thrillingly on the high notes as many classic performances do, and may be a little too self-consciously enacted, but it's a fascinating version of this familiar music.

An important part of the success of this CD is the incisive conducting of Adam Fischer. La Scintilla is the period-instrument orchestra of the Zurich Opera, and its softer, mellower timbres are especially notable in "Casta diva" and other quieter arias. A group called the International Chamber Soloists, providing the chorus in five of the numbers, is beautifully integrated into the ensembles, and Decca's engineers work out a fine balance between Bartoli's voice, the orchestra, and the chorus and other soloists. The hardbound booklet, with its photos of Malibran artifacts from Bartoli's personal collection (e.g., a coffeepot with the diva's portrait painted on it) and even more fan photos of Bartoli, is merely the icing on the cake.

 

 

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