Cecilia Bartoli and Rolando Villazón Raise the Roof Eventually at the Barbican

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini – Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano) and Rolando Villazón (tenor): Pier Luigi Fabretti (oboe), Orchestra La Scintilla of the Zurich Opera /Ada Pesch (concertmaster). Barbican Hall, London, 18.12.2015. (JPr)

Cecilia Bartoli and Rolando Villazón (c) Douglas Kirkland

Mozart – Overture from Così fan tutte
Mozart – ‘Si mostra la sorte’ KV 209
Mozart – ‘Chi sa, chi sa, qual sia’ KV 582
Mozart – ‘Quel casinetto è mio…Là ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni
Rossini – Overture; ‘Nacqui all’affanno’ from La Cenerentola
Donizetti – ‘Una furtiva lagrima’; ‘Una parola, o Adina…Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera’ from L’elisir d’amore
Bellini – Concerto for Oboe in E flat major
Bellini – ‘Torna, vezzosa Fillide’
Rossini – Overture from La scala di seta
Rossini – excerpts from Otello Act III;
‘Assisa a’ piè d’un salice’
‘Deh calma, o Ciel nel sonno’
‘Eccomi giunto inosservato’
‘Non arrestare il colpo’
‘Notte per me funesta’ 

This was the second London concert in just four days (review) featuring a singer making a very rare appearance in the UK – and where the encores were the best part of the evening! It was nearly 10pm when Cecilia Bartoli, with a glass of champagne in her hand, and Rolando Villazón, with what looked like a Peroni in his, raised the roof with a third additional number to the advertised programme – the Brindisi from La traviata. This followed a joyous La Danza from Rossini and Franz Lehár’s waltzing, slightly cloying, but ultimately endearing ‘Lippen schweigen’. For all of these Rolando Villazón had a full-throated can belto glory whilst Cecilia Bartoli seemed in her element and was having a great time … and so were we. Sadly, by this time a number of the audience – including some leading music critics – were already on their way home.

Cecilia Bartoli and Rolando Villazón are currently on a European tour and they wrote in the programme that ‘Since we share a love for the Classical and bel canto repertoire, it seemed only natural that we choose a concert programme including some of the most beautiful music by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini.’ This was supported by the refined playing of the Orchestra La Scintilla of the Zurich Opera on their period instruments which gave a fresh, innocent quality to some familiar and – at least to me – less well-known music.

Now a warning: in his current vocal health please do not expect Rolando Villazón to appear as Alfredo in La traviata in March at Covent Garden when he is scheduled for three performances. It was announced that he had a cold but I am not certain he could have done any better even if he hadn’t. His sound has its original darkness (as evidenced by a recording I heard recently) but the flexibility is not there and the simplest of phrases can bring about a ‘catch’ in his voice. This was only a few times but enough to put me on the edge of my seat as to if and when it might happen. We heard him at full throttle in Bellini’s rather Zarzuela-like romanza ‘Torna, vezzosa Fillide’ and also when he growled (in the best sense) and glowed with vengeful fury during a melodramatic and thrilling final scene from Rossini’s Otello. The problems somewhere in his higher register meant he was most successful in the baritone world of Don Giovanni and less so with Nemorino’s famous aria ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ which brought a tear to the eye – this time not in a good way! To be truthful Villazón doesn’t have the elegance and florid technique needed for the bel canto repertoire and maybe never did …  Bartoli has – and doesn’t she know it and show it!

Because I do not listen to recordings that much Cecilia Bartoli has been something of a mystery to me as she rarely appears in this country and this was the first time I had heard her live. I can now appreciate what all the fuss is about. Her mezzo-soprano has a warm timbre, a remarkable range of vocal colours, technical security, as well as maturity, refined phrasing and still spectacular virtuosity. She is probably the operatic ‘poster girl’ for only singing what you are good at and capable of … in this way you can extend your career almost indefinitely. I suspect she has been singing ‘Nacqui all’affanno’ from Cenerentola for decades and its fiendish coloratura ornaments still sounded effortless. Here and elsewhere she did play to her audience somewhat but it was never too much to be distracting. She was never going to be as bad as all Villazón’s hand gestures and raised eyebrows but even this seemed endearing by the end of the evening.

Actually Villazón seemed to come more to life during the recitatives and duets even though Bartoli was always the more vocally resplendent partner during Mozart’s ‘Quel casinetto è mio…Là ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni and ‘Una parola, o Adina’…’Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera’ from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. In the former Bartoli was ravishing as the shy Zerlina (actually a soprano role) gradually succumbing to the great seducer, Don Giovanni, and she was the embodiment of the self-confident, rather hard-hearted, Adina, who cannot believe someone is willing to die because of unrequited love for her. They both came into their own in those final scenes from Rossini’s Otello; Bartoli earned our sympathy as the wronged Desdemona during her plaintive ‘Willow Song’ and ‘Prayer’ and Villazón was totally believable in his insane jealously as he stabs his lover in revenge. Unfortunately, this was accompanied by some less-than-spectacular lighting and thunder sheet effects.

The period-instrument Zurich ensemble, La Scintilla, accompanied the evening in a light and airy fashion maintaining a pleasant, almost playful, conversational tone throughout which never overwhelmed the singing. It also got its own moments to shine during a few overtures and Bellini’s Oboe Concerto in which Pier Luigi Fabretti excelled. Elsewhere there also eloquently accomplished contributions from bassoonist Urs Dengler, flautist Claire Genewein, harpist Una Prelle and concertmaster Ada Pesch.

Jim Pritchard

For future events at the Barbican visit www.barbican.org.uk.

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