By Sarah Hucal
BERLIN — When two of the world’s best-loved opera stars embark on a concert tour of bel canto hits, anything can happen, especially if those singers are mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli and tenor Rolando Villazón.
Touring with the Orchestra La Scintilla, the pair’s fourth stop was the golden hall of Berlin’s Philharmonie on Dec. 8. The tour continues at the Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Dec. 14, the Barbican in London Dec. 18, the Philharmonie in Paris Dec. 20, and the Philharmonie in Luxembourg Dec. 22.
It’s also the first time the duo is collaborating in concert, an event likely sparked by their appearance in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride at last summer’s Salzburg Festival.
Singers flush with success, Bartoli and Villazón performed duets, arias, and scenes by Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. The evening included both vocal and orchestral pieces and began with selections from Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Both singers warmed up with arias: “Si mostra la sorte” for Bartoli and “Chi sà, chi sà, qual sia” for Villazón. They then joined together for “Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni, an announced substitution for Così’s “Fra gli amplessi in pochi istanti.” This was the first glimpse of the onstage chemistry between Bartoli, a coy Zerlina, and Villazòn, a raffish Don.
Bartoli was undeniably the star of the evening. In recent years, the singer has been busy unearthing works by lesser-known composers and giving life to lost pieces from Tsarist Russia. However, she never seems to stray too far from the bel canto repertory that brought her to fame. Touted by Herbert van Karajan, Daniel Barenboim, and others before she had finished her training, Bartoli was quickly catapulted into stardom in the 1990s. Her light lyric mezzo-soprano voice lent itself well to Mozart’s trouser roles and the agility and sensitivity that bel canto repertory requires.
The singer also has a penchant for playing with convention. Her first performance of Bellini’s druid goddess Norma, a notably challenging soprano role made famous by Maria Callas, earned acclaim from skeptical critics at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival (of which Bartoli is artistic director) in 2013. It was yet another feather in the hat of an artist who continues to defy vocal typecasting.
The ease and playfulness with which she attacked Rossini’s challenging coloratura in “Non più mesta” (from La Cenerentola), one of her signature pieces, brought the audience to fervent applause.
Bartoli’s singing is at once precise and impassioned, qualities both on display in this rousing piece. One couldn’t help but liken Bartoli to the opera’s heroine as she sings of having arrived at success.
Vocally, Villazòn had a shaky first half, his voice cracking in the opening phrases of “Una furtiva lagrima” (L’elisir d’amore) and again at the aria’s climax. This evoked snickers from some of the more unforgiving members of the audience.
Also known for his impassioned singing of bel canto repertoire, Villazòn has an unfortunate history of vocal trouble. After a quick rise to fame in 2004 following a debut as Hoffmann at London’s Royal Opera House, Villazòn’s pairing with Anna Netrebko shot him into stardom as a romantic tenor. Yet he soon began to suffer vocal embarrassments on the world’s leading stages. In 2007, a cyst found to be the cause was promptly removed. However, Villazòn still seems to struggle occasionally, oozing pure emotion that tends to stretch his instrument beyond its limits, as in this performance.
The tenor was, however, back in full form at the start of the second half with Bellini’s romanza “Torna vezzosa fillide.” Although he seemed to stray from the orchestra at certain points, his ardent performance and vocal gymnastics made up for it.
Orchestra La Scintilla showcased dexterous playing under the leadership of concertmaster Ada Pesch. Bartoli’s long relationship with the ensemble was apparent. They have collaborated on several recordings, concert tours, and operas in recent years. Applying the technical rigor of Baroque music with the right touch of romanticism didn’t appear to challenge the ensemble. And oboist Pierre Luigi Fabretti shone when tackling the tricky runs of Bellini’s Oboe Concerto in E-flat.
Both Bartoli and Villazòn have great talent as singing actors, possessing the ability to slide effortlessly into roles even in a concert setting. This adaptability was on full display when the pair undertook Desdemona’s death scene from the third act of Rossini’s Otello.
Bartoli, having donned a white dress bedecked in a pattern not unlike the weeping willow under which her character sleeps, performed a poignant rendition of Desdemona’s aria, “Assisa a’ piè d’un salice.” The iron edge of her agile voice dug into the slowly rising scale sung by the character soon to be no more. She was joined by Villazòn, who matched her in vocal and emotional intensity in the stormy scena “Notte per me funesta.”
The evening ended with three rousing encores in which the singers seemed to be unabashedly enjoying themselves, hamming it up for the crowd. The first was a gushing Italian song from the 1930s, “Non ti scordar di me.” The second, an energetic version of Rossini’s “La Danza –Tarantella Napoletana,” had the singers wielding tambourines and trading lines rapid-fire. Finally, Villazòn and Bartoli pleased the crowd with a romantic rendition of Lehár’s “Lippen Schweigen” (from The Merry Widow), a fitting ode to a Berlin audience that loved them.
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Sarah Hucal is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. She has written for The Guardian, Deutsche Welle, Time Out New York and Al Jazeera English, among other publications.