Cecilia Bartoli's frequent habit in recent years of calling off concerts on her crowded schedule at the eleventh hour has given her the nickname "Cancellia." But the celebrated Italian mezzo-soprano kept her promise to present a song recital, accompanied by pianist Daniel Barenboim, Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center. Even with tickets as high as $103, Orchestra Hall had been sold out for weeks, including terrace and stage seats.
The event marked the superstar singer's long-awaited return to a city that has not heard nearly enough of her in recent years. Bartoli is making amends by appearing twice at Orchestra Hall this week. Fresh from Sunday's program of Italian and French songs, she and Barenboim will also collaborate in Berlioz's song cycle, "Les Nuits d'Ete," at Tuesday's Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription concert, before heading to New York the following day to repeat their programs at Carnegie Hall.
If Bartoli continues to resist Lyric Opera's most persistent efforts to snare her for opera, at least she was kind enough to favor her adoring audience on Sunday with a Mozart aria ("Un moto di gioia," an alternate number for Susanna in "Marriage of Figaro") and two Rossini cantatas that could be considered solo operas in miniature. The rest of her agenda was given over to songs by Mozart, Schubert, Viardot-Garcia and Bizet.
None of this music proved particularly profound, but nobody goes to a Bartoli concert expecting a Liederabend. The artist cannily assembled a program that allowed her to do what she does bestshow off her amazing vocal compass and expressive range; her phenomenal agility, at top speed, in intricate passagework; and her rare ability to make it all sound natural and charming. She remains one of the great vocal phenomena of the day, a delectable singer blessed with a rich and dark mezzo that is flexible enough to inhabit the soprano range with ease.
Swaddled in a burnt orange and peach gown, the singer clearly was enjoying herself as much as her ecstatic fans, who would not budge from their seats until she favored them with three encores. Throughout the afternoon, the musical chemistry between her and Barenboim proved almost telepathic, his pianism unfailingly supportive.
Many recital singers use Mozart songs as mere warmup exercises; not Bartoli. Delivering two Mozart songs to Italian texts and two more in her second language, French, she was in full command from the beginning. Her leaps to the top of the staff in "Ridente la calma" were effortless, with no chopping of the line or loss of tonal purity. It would take a stony heart indeed not to melt at the rapturous expression she brought to the penultimate verse of "Dans un bois solitaire."
The two Rossini cantatas, "La regata veneziana" and "Giovanna d'Arco," displayed her peerless coloratura technique and keen musical intelligence even as they showed off her talents at portraiture both frivolous and dramatic. The rapid repeated notes, trills and turns were dispatched with incisive rhythm and clean enunciation of the Italian texts. Whether as a Venetian girl urging her sweetheart to victory in a regatta, or as Joan of Arc resolutely facing death, Bartoli had her audience hanging on every vocal flourish.
The dusky majesty of her lower range became a potent tool in characterizing the heartbroken heroines of two Schubert songs. But she did not dwell on dolorous sentiments for very long. The two Viardot-Garcia pieces were exquisitely turned before Bartoli brought down the house with a Bizet trifle about a pink ladybird, which she mimicked, hilariously, in a squeaky falsetto.
Her encores, all Italian songs, consisted of Paisiello's "Nel cor piu non mi sento," Rossini's "La danza" and De Curtis' "Non ti scordar di me." She and Barenboim kidded the Rossini ditty, and each other's virtuosity, by racing through it as fast as humanly possible. By then the house was up for grabs, and kisses and standing ovations and rose bouquets signaled the close of an unforgettable afternoon of song.