Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano
Sergio Ciomei, piano
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
March 15, 2011

Cecilia Bartoli has become one of today’s most popular and recognisable classical stars, often lending her exceptional gifts to the adventurous cause of exploring relatively unknown repertoire. Her Sacrificium concert programme, based on her recording of the same name which features early 18th-century music for castrati, aims to share with a wider audience music with which only baroque devotees might be familiar. While not usually a baroque fan myself, I very much looked forward to finding out what this repertoire had to offer and experiencing the Italian singer’s prodigious talents firsthand.

The concert opened with pianist Sergio Ciomei playing Scarlatti’s Sonata in E, K380, at the last bars of which Bartoli strode on stage costumed in black boots, cape and feathered hat as seen in her Art of the Castrati DVD. The programme alternated fast and slow arias by Porpora, Broschi, Handel, Vinci, Leo, Araia and Caldara – a personal highlight was Broschi’s Chi non sente al mio dolore from the obscure 1732 opera Siface. This aria showcased one of the most outstanding qualities of Bartoli’s singing: phenomenal breath control facilitating richly coloured phrasing and captivating dynamic contrasts. In the bravura arias, her head-spinning coloratura was delivered with remarkable precision and expressive intent. These vocal feats, in addition to an endearing, charismatic stage presence, make it easy to see why she is one of the best-selling classical artists recording today.

I walked into the concert hall quite willing to be won over by the music, but I was ultimately disappointed; Opera Australia’s production of Handel’s Partenope in the theatre next door has proved much more persuasive. In this recital setting the artificiality and rigidity of these showpieces came to the fore – repetitive text and excessive coloratura pyrotechnics made no dramatic impact despite several attempts to inject theatricality into proceedings with several gimmicky costume changes.

Ciomei’s solo performances of piano interludes by Scarlatti, Handel, Leo and Marcelli were enjoyable and technically impressive, but as accompanist he was detached and lacked assertiveness. This venue was simply too big for the programme; Bartoli’s voice is on the small side and the piano lid was down. A more intimate acoustic would have served the music and performers better, although the effective presentation of the stage and subtle lighting changes helped to create the atmosphere of a soirée.

With the audience clamouring for encores, Bartoli was generous enough to give three, including a beautiful Ombra mai fu to finish. Australian concertgoers are fortunate that she has toured nationally at last, although only Sydneysiders heard the Sacrificium repertoire. I imagine her alternate programme, an evening of Romantic songs, would have been more satisfying as a recital – even without Bartoli dressed as a musketeer.