The sound of Cecilia Bartoli executing an operatic cadenza at breakneck speed, or yet another slowed down to a kind of perfume hanging in midair, the tiniest hemi demisemiquaver precisely in place and every tone a crystal of ravishing perfection, is one of those awesome natural phenomena beyond the explanation of the most eloquent of music critics. About her recital at a sold-out, wildly exuberant Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Monday night, therefore, no rational explanation is even worth attempting.
Marvelously equipped Italian ladies with golden throats and enviable vocal techniques, with flashing, seductive smiles and dark eyes, are actually not all that rare; they swarm all over the crossover and pop lists, and some of them even nest among classical performers. The Bartoli difference touches upon matters of taste, brains and a sense of mission. The latter is most important of all. Rather than the easy victories scored among the 50-favorite-aria categories within which garden-variety divas earn their deserved millions, Bartoli has launched into the rich and rare territory of Italy’s operatic roots. She digs deep and unearths treasures.
Her program this time (which also appears on her latest Decca CD) derived from a narrow sliver of musical history: Rome circa 1710, where romantic opera was prohibited by papal decree and composers (including the young George Frideric Handel, visiting from Germany) got around the law by composing dramas with sacred heroes and martyrs. What the Vatican did not prohibit was vocal virtuosity at its most flamboyant — scales, curlicues, breathtaking held notes. Beyond the virtuosity, some of this music is simply, fabulously, beautiful.
Armed with a 25-member ensemble of early-music specialists — the Zurich-based Orchestra La Scintilla — Bartoli has set out to prove that point and has done so beyond refutation. A visual dream she was, in several miles of cool green fabric that seemed to match her own joy in her chosen music, however unfamiliar, and send it out to the crowd.