Bartoli Rekindles Trove Of Arias From Old Russia

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Cecilia Bartoli's latest CD features little known arias discovered in her research of the 18th-century Russian court.
Cecilia Bartoli’s latest CD features little known arias discovered in her research of the 18th-century Russian court.
(Photo © Uli Weber-Decca)

Cecilia Bartoli – St. Petersburg: Music by Araia, Raupach, Manfredini, and Cimarosa. Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano), I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis (conductor). (Decca 478 6767). Total Time: 77’57.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — Just a few weeks ago, I was standing in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg admiring its vast holdings of mostly European art and pondering the vision of the great 18th-century tsaritsas, especially Catherine the Great (1729-96), who made it all possible. Now comes an imaginative CD researched and performed by mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli celebrating the music from this period. I was primed and ready, you might say, to enjoy this new release, and it didn’t disappoint me.

The tsaritsas Anna (1730-40), Elizabeth (1741-61), and Catherine (1762-96), preceded by the example of Peter the Great (1682-1725), all continued the process of westernization that transformed Russia — or at least St. Petersburg — from a provincial, isolated backwater into one of the major cultural centers of the world. France was the model for the Russian rulers, generally speaking, but not in musical matters.

See below for a clip of the CD recital and release party, at Versailles.
See below for a clip of the CD recital and release party, at Versailles.

Early in Tsaritsa Anna’s reign, an Italian opera company visited St. Petersburg, and the Russian court loved what they heard. Francesco Araia from Naples was hired as the first Russian court composer. In 1736, one of his operas was produced at the Winter Palace, which later became the main building of the Hermitage Museum. From that point on, there was no looking back; Italian composers and performers beat a path to St. Petersburg and were welcomed with open arms.In preparation for this recording, Bartoli made a pilgrimage to St. Petersburg and spent many hours in the library of the Mariinsky Theatre, where she uncovered some real gems — music by Italian composers who had spent time in Russia during the 18th century, some of whose works, those of the aforementioned Araia (1709-1770) among them, are now all but unknown.

The most exciting music on the CD — and Bartoli’s first recordings in Russian — is by the man who succeeded Araia as Russian court composer, Hermann Raupach (1728-1778). The aria “Razverzi pyos gortani, laya” from the opera Altsesta is a tour de force for both Bartoli and the orchestra. She is all fire and fury and the trumpets cut through with coruscating abandon. I can’t think of any singer today who could or would go all out the way Bartoli does. This piece depicts nearly seven minutes of unremitting madness, and the singer does whatever she has to do to convey the woman’s insanity. No wonder Bartoli has been acclaimed for her incomparable Norma in a recent production and recording.

Now 48, Bartoli’s voice has darkened and become heavier over the years. Under pressure, her vibrato can become uncomfortably wide. With age, however, has also come heightened emotion. In her youth, Bartoli had a pretty voice with an astonishing technique. Today, the voice is less pretty but far more expressive and often passionate in the extreme.

The disc also includes several of Araia’s operatic arias, one of which, “Pastor che a note ombrosa” from his opera Seleuco — a duet for mezzo-soprano and oboe, with the oboe imitating the ornamentation of the voice, and vice-versa — is given an extraordinarily beautiful rendition by Bartoli and oboist Pier Luigi Fabretti. There are also delicious duets in Manfredini’s “Non turbar que’ vaghi rai” (voice and flute), and Cimarosa’s “Agitata in tante pene” (voice and clarinet). The latter also has some surprising modulations that keep the music fresh. The period instrument ensemble I Barocchisti, directed by Diego Fasolis, performs magnificently throughout.

A central feature of this recording is Bartoli’s ongoing and deep curiosity about music. In album after album, she has unearthed important but forgotten music, and given performances that make these pieces come alive again. She does so again with Cecilia Bartoli – St. Petersburg.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster, and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.

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