This review was originally published on OperaWire
Cecilia Bartoli’s latest album, “Antonio Vivaldi” (2018), comes almost twenty years after her historic recording, “The Vivaldi Album,” which was released in 1999 to wide critical acclaim and incredible popular success.
The 1999 album sparked a renewed interest in Vivaldi’s operatic works and positioned Bartoli as a champion of neglected or forgotten music. It also showcased Bartoli’s talents as a world-class interpreter, and a passionate and exciting performer dedicated to historical verisimilitude in her craft.
Marking Bartoli’s 30th anniversary with Decca records, it is difficult to avoid framing this return to Vivaldi as a significant point of transition for the singer. It is equally difficult to avoid drawing comparisons—perhaps intended—between the two works that so neatly bookend Bartoli’s recording career to-date.
Such comparisons are, in many ways, profitable. They allow us to revisit the energy and vivacity of the 1999 album, which still has the ability to thrill the listener with its largesse, and, as a result, to appreciate the greater subtlety and sophistication of her latest offering.
“Antonio Vivaldi” is a smaller album. There are just 10 arias in comparison to the 13 presented on “The Vivaldi Album,” and the intimate, refined sound of the French Baroque orchestra, Ensemble Matheus, conducted by Jean-Christophe Spinosi compliments Bartoli’s medium-bodied vocals.
The opening piece of the album; the revenge aria, “Se lento ancora il fulmine,” from “Agrippo” capitalizes on Bartoli’s trademark rapid coloratura. Bartoli captures the full range of expression and emotion in the piece as it shifts between the raging vengeance of a betrayed wife and the soft pleas to her husband that he will be forgiven if he only comes back.
Setting the tone for the album as a whole, which also switches between quick, energetic arias like the frenzied “Ah fuggi rapido” from “Orlando Furioso” and the militaristic call to arms “Combatta un gentil cor” from “Tito Manlio” and slower, more reflective pieces—”Leggi almeno, tiranna infedele” from “Ottone in Villa” and ‘Sovente il solo’ from “Andromeda Liberata”—this opening aria is also a statement of purpose, showcasing the continuing strength of Bartoli’s vocal agility and expressive range.
The arias chosen for this album offer a spectrum of emotional color. The passion and fury of the opening aria is balanced by the delicacy of “Leggi almeno, tiranna infedele” in which Bartoli’s Caio expresses his feelings for the inconstant Cleonilla. Bartoli brings out the tension between the tender feelings of the character towards his new love and his guilt regarding his betrayed fiancée in the soft, almost whispered lines of a shared secret.
Other pieces, such as the flirtatious “Solo quella guancia bella” from “La Verita in Cimento” carry a playful tone at which Bartoli excels.
These arias may not be the most widely familiar, but they are unquestionably beautiful, and reward careful and repeated listening. Perhaps none more so than the final “Se mai senti spirarti sul volto,” Caesar’s moving love song from “Cantone in Utica.” In this piece, Bartoli’s softer tones melt over gentle strings before arcing gracefully over wide leaps and runs that bring out her characteristic dexterity and the richness of her lower-middle register. A long aria, lasting over nine minutes, it never falters and, as the last piece on the album, it leaves listeners to contemplate its intricacies in the silence that follows.
Complimenting Bartoli’s vocals, the Ensemble Matheus hosts some exquisite soloists whose performances are worthy of note. French flautist Jean-Marc Goujon opens “Sol da te, mio dolce amore” from “Orlando Furioso” with a hauntingly beautiful solo—often recognized as one of the most difficult pieces for baroque flute—which conveys the spell under which Bartoli’s Ruggerio is held. Bartoli’s voice entwines with the flute’s melodic lines to gorgeous effect, delicately capturing the sense of ensorcelled bliss as Ruggerio expresses his love to the enchantress Alcina.
Bartoli’s obvious delight in sharing the spotlight with instrumental soloists, and her ability to interact sensitively and to mutual benefit with their style, is a highlight of this album. The playful sparring with conductor Jean-Chrisophe Spinosi’s violin in “Quell’augellin che canta” from the pastorale “La Silva” is as joyful as their collaboration in the slow lament “Sovvente il sole” is soulful, and Serge Tizac’s trumpet in “Combatta un gentil cor” is a vibrant and exciting match to Bartoli’s quick-fire acrobatics. Perhaps due to this emphasis on collaboration, it is an album in which all the elements seem to have achieved a perfect balance.
Compared to some of the more immediately gratifying elements of the 1999 album—Bartoli’s “Dopo un’ orrida procella” from “Griselda” remains unsurpassed for sheer heart-stopping fireworks—the overall experience of this new album is more of a slow-burn.
Revisiting it over the course of days, weeks, and months, however, it grows into something that feels quite special. “Antonio Vivaldi” is a sophisticated and nuanced album, and fans of Bartoli will enjoy a voice that has lost none of its emotional appeal, nor its enviable agility, and has, if anything, refined into a more technically accomplished instrument.