Diva Cecelia Bartoli a pure pleasure

April 08, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON -- For a superstar, the young mezzo Cecilia Bartoli is blessedly free of mannerisms, attitude and shtick. In fact, the only evidence of her diva status is that her recital Sunday afternoon at Constitution Hall started 15 minutes late.

Another nice thing: While her best-selling CDs are almost all collections of favorites, her recital programs cover more esoteric ground.

Bartoli's voice -- limber, lush and infinitely versatile -- is so beautiful that she could sing a program of soda commercials (or Philip Glass!) and her audience wouldn't care a hoot.

As anyone knows who caught her performance as Despina in the Metropolitan Opera's "Cosi fan tutte" when it was broadcast in January, she's also an enchanting actress. She brings songs to life with her gestures, her diction and her huge brown eyes.

This season, her touring program has a first half entirely devoted to Antonio Vivaldi, a Baroque master better known for his instrumental than his vocal output.

Accompanied by an Italian string quartet called I Delfici, Bartoli sang Vivaldi's motet "In furore iustissimae irae"; a cantata (probably written for castrato) called "Cessate, omai cessate"; and an aria from the opera "La Griselda."

These gave her an opportunity to show off her melodic sheen and her brilliant, supernaturally accurate coloratura. For the connoisseur, these pieces are filled with delicate word-painting: four strict quarter-notes, for instance, on the four syllables of "iustissimae" (which means "justified"); surges of sound in the aria, which describes a storm and a shipwreck.

The second half of the recital featured some of Maurice Ravel's "chants populaires" -- folk songs in such out-of-the-way dialects as Galician Spanish, Limousin French and Yiddish. Bartoli was at her most vivid in the last, a "Chanson hebraique" in which a father questions his son in Yiddish and the son answers with snatches of the Hebrew liturgy, including the hymn "Sholom aleichem."

This section also included a Bartoli standard, "Les filles de Cadix," a Spanish-flavored song by a composer best known for his ballets, Leo Delibes; and an aria from the forgotten Rossini opera "Zelmira" (1822).

But by far the most interesting works were two songs by Pauline Viardot-Garcia (1821-1910), the most famous mezzo of her day and no mean composer. Bartoli sang the exquisitely colored "Havanaise" (habanera) and "Hai luli!" -- two very different love songs.

Her accompanist was the sensitive and self-effacing Gyorgy Fischer.

Her encores included Paisiello's cheerfully artless "Nel cor piu non mi sento" and her signature tune, Rossini's "Canzona espagnola," with each verse successively faster.

Pub Date: 4/08/97

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