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Everyone, at some point or another, and whether they will admit it now or not, dreamed of being a rock star when they grew up. I freely admit that for a significant portion of my life, I desperately wanted to be Debbie Gibson.
But I no longer want to be a rock star. I want to be an opera singer.
The difference between a rock star like Debbie Gibson, and an opera singer like Cecilia Bartoli, who performed a Fleet CelebritySeries recital at Boston's Symphony Hall on October 22 to a full house, could be described as the difference between rhinestones and diamonds. While Gibson has (or had, depending on who you talk to) catchy beats, hot dance moves and glitz by the mile, Bartoli has complex, complicated arias, a captivating stage presence and an elegance so effortless that one can only surmise that it must be innate.
The recital began without fanfare, as Bartoli walked to the center of the stage, took a breath, and began to sing. Her only accompaniment was a therobo, a type of Baroque guitar that looks somewhat like a glorified soup spoon. This humble arrangement, however, was deceptively simple. Bartoli's first notes were tentative and seemed a bit unsure, but as she worked her way through four works by Guilio Caccini, she one could hear the strength coming into her voice. Bartoli showed hints of her vocal range by alternating between faster, animated songs ("Tu ch'hai le Penne, Amore," and "Amarilli") and slower, more sedate songs, such as "Belle Rose Porporine" and "Al Fonte, al Prato."
But it was not until Bartoli began singing Vivaldi that she hit her stride. Clothed in an opulent gown of Venetian-red silk, Bartoli became animated as she launched into her first Vivaldi work. She began with "Il Povero Mio Core," singing a heavy, soulful aria, followed by a quick, assertive Recitativo and then a frighteningly fast aria. It was in the last aria that Bartoli truly claimed the stage as her own-her anger was perceptible in the furthest balcony, and the her energy was palpable. Bartoli personified the words "Disperato, Confuso, Agiato" with all of the painful anguish of a scorned lover.
As Bartoli continued to sing, it became clear that she was not a woman to meet in a dark alley late at night, or someone whose heart it would be advisable to break. While she sang some breathtakingly beautiful slower songs-such as the dignified "Domine Deus" from Gloria, the serious "Non ti Lusinghi la Crudeltade," Lucio's aria from Tito Manilo, and the sublime aria of Irene, "Sposa son Disprezzata," from Bajaset-it was in the dark, angry arias of fierce battles and even fiercer love that her full vocal range was given the most expression.
Bartoli sang two arias from Judith Triumphans that were positively fiery, including the staccato "Armatae face, et Angibus," and then sang the fun, upbeat aria of Leocasta "Sventurata Navicella" from Giustino. (Indeed, this seems to be a favorite of Bartoli's, when, during her fifth encore, she had evidently run out of things to sing, she sang "Sventurata Navicella" for a second time.)
But the true highlight of Bartoli's performance was the obvious pleasure she took from performing. At times she raised a playful eyebrow at her accompaniment, urging them to keep up with her forceful pace. Other times she was so engrossed in the anger of a character that her fists remained clenched throughout the song, her legs spread apart and her shoulders shaking. She clapped right along with the audience at the end of a set, flashing a smile that seemed made for the stage. And finally, during her last song, she laughed.
The audience couldn't get enough of Bartoli, and she came back for no less than five encores, finally having to physically drag her musicians off the stage by force. But before her last encore song, Bartoli, with a knowing gleam in her eye, leaned out to the audience, asking "un altri?"
CECILIA BARTOLI at Symphony Hall October 22
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