Cecilia Bartoli at the Barbican

The great mezzo doesn't disappoint in a performance with the Kammerorchester Basel

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Cecilia BartoliA mouse ran down the steps; Bartoli coughed mid-aria and croaked out an explanatory ‘bronchitis’… a shudder of nervous laughter from the audience. Was the show about to fall apart? Not likely. Conductor Diego Fasolis swept up the strings of kammerorchesterbasle and the Italian mezzo finished the melting aria from Steffani’s Tassilone with a quietly expressive focus that (almost) eradicated any sense of interruption.

For the packed house of adoring fans it would frankly have been enough to watch ‘La Ceci’ reclining on the sofa listening to the lively Overtures – which she did with such keenly infectious delight it was hard to drag one’s attention to the players themselves.

As if we needed reminding, the pint-sized Bartoli is an irresistible artist with sufficient charisma to fill several stadia.

The ominous announcement that she was suffering from a cold didn’t bode well, and in the first half of this concert at the Barbican, her small but complete voice did seem underpowered. In the event, though, it not only survived the programme but warmed up and developed so that her two Handel encores proved the highlight (‘Lascia la spina’ from Il tempo del disinganno was particularly ravishing). 

That may say something about the relative merits of the programme’s star composer, Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) and his younger colleague Handel. The ‘mission’ behind Bartoli’s current release on the Decca label is to reinstate the mysterious cleric-diplomat and composer to his rightful place in the development of Baroque opera. He has a doughty champion in Ms Bartoli who knows a thing of two about marketing: having rigorously researched the available manuscripts (mainly residing in Vienna, and in London due to Steffani’s connections with George I) she and Fasoli have made a beautifully-shaped selection of arias and overtures from seven operas showing off his skill and significance to entrancing effect.

There’s no doubt Steffani is a distinctive voice in the operatic period between Monteverdi and Vivaldi. Working for German nobility, he combined the Venetian tradition with a love of French dance music. Tambourine in hand, Bartoli dazzled with trills, semi-quaver runs and daring high coloratura in the declamatory ‘Schiere invitte’ and wove Niobe’s heartfelt pleas in long, silken lines growing out of silence. She inhabits each phrase, each vowel with such intense expressive control, who could not be persuaded?

The vivacious Julia Schroeder is a fine leader of kammerorchesterbasle, but trumpeter Simon Lilly and oboist Kerstin Kramp were no match for La Ceci in their charming obbligati parts: aside from her formidable control, there’s a liquescent radiance in her sound which cast them into the roles of lacklustre stooges. Perhaps that was all part of the dramatic plan? Beguiling percussive effects - tinkling bells at starlight, an owl in the nocturne – lent a theatrical air to the proceedings, which buzzed with high-spirited camaraderie.

Let’s hope the mouse stayed to listen…