Singer Bartoli brings fresh voice to recital

March 28, 1994|By W. Andrew Powell | W. Andrew Powell,Special to The Sun

The small Roman mezzo-soprano of Cecilia Bartoli found itself in the vast space of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Friday evening for a long-awaited, sold-out Washington debut.

So tight were tickets that stage seats had been added and standing room was sold to the fire marshal's limit. People wandered about at the building's entrances holding "buy" placards while faces in the return-tickets line were a sea of despondency. Even the usually empty White House box was occupied -- by Donna Shalala.

Ms. Bartoli's fame has grown rapidly. Magazine covers, recording awards, acres of laudatory newspaper copy, and two or three years as a darling of America's various public broadcasting entities have all helped.

But the 27-year-old star could not be described as a product of hype. She has generated the kind of enthusiasm among critics that can only be fed with talent. Classical music has seen nothing like her in years.

Friday's recital, with its six encores, was uncommonly generous, mostly fresh, sometimes dull, always charming.

Ms. Bartoli would not -- and could not -- force her voice to fill the hall. Instead, she expertly focused the sound and illuminated her mostly Italian words to captivate even distantly seated listeners.

Vocal officialdom has labeled her a "coloratura mezzo." Actually, she has a range of more than three octaves; a dark, rich vocal timbre and soothing vibrato; an ability to maintain tonal quality through the wildest musical gymnastics; refined legato phrasing; true bel canto style; clear diction and an authentic command of her native tongue; an unaffected stage presence; and arresting good taste.

What is missing, for now, is the mature emotional compass of a great artist.

That will surely develop later in Ms. Bartoli's career.

On Friday, she merely bounced back and forth between two poles -- the lively child and the swooning adolescent.

The program's first half -- arias of Giulio Caccini, Caldara, Cesti, Paisiello, Pergolesi, Alessandro Scarlatti and Vivaldi -- gave Washington what it came to hear.

Cesti's "Intorno all'idol mio" and Vivaldi's "Sposa son disprezzata" were models of serenity, their phrases spun out to perfection, while Vivaldi's "Agitata da due venti" produced a phenomenal coloratura display.

Much credit in these, and through the evening, belonged to the fluent and always sensitive accompanist Gyorgy Fischer, whose piano remained closed, presumably for balance.

The all-Rossini second half did not live up to Ms. Bartoli's own achievements with this composer.

"The Venetian Regata" may fit the singer's nature, but it is hardly great music. By contrast, three French settings need more depth than she gave them. "Bel raggio lusinghier," a Bartoli signature, lacked concentration and felt rushed.

Among the encores were Mozart's "Voi che sapete," rendered with boyish zest, and Rossini's darkly Andalusian "Canzonetta spagnola," which winningly displayed the mezzo's lower range. Finally, Bizet's "Pres des remparts de Seville" offered a glimpse of the maturity -- and the Carmen -- to come.

The Washington Performing Arts Society audience applauded long and lustily, as did Ms. Bartoli, game-show-style.

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