Superstar mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli has done very well for herself by sticking to an old-fashioned principle: Leave ‘em wanting more. She takes her time -- accepting few operatic engagements, putting plenty of space between recordings, gathering the harvest now and then.
Right now is a peak harvest time for Bartoli. There is a flood of recordings: a new Bellini “La Sonnambula” on CD; a DVD reflecting her current obsession with Maria Malibran, the iconic 19th century mezzo whose bicentennial was last year; and, in the pipeline, a “Semele” DVD and a reissue of her bel canto recital with James Levine on piano. And there is her current concert tour, which despite the deep recession attracted a packed, worshiping turnout -- at up to $260 a seat -- to the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Tuesday night.
There were few new treasure hunts this time, no rummagings through the unexplored back catalogs of Vivaldi, Salieri or Gluck.
Instead, the theme was what a Malibran recital in a Parisian salon might have been like, but this basically meant a return to the bel canto songs that Bartoli recorded with Levine and pianist Charles Spencer in the 1990s.
Somehow, Bartoli has fused a stage persona of part glamorous operatic diva, part earthy Italian girl and part diligent music student -- and that gives her an appealing ambiguity that reaches different people in different ways. Her voice is darker and has a bit more flutter at 42, but it settled into a smoother groove as the evening progressed.
And hers was never a big voice -- her fortissimos might be another singer’s mezzo-fortes. Still, it was just large enough for the generous Segerstrom acoustic to carry it easily to the first level of boxes in the rear. She also had very sympathetic support from her pianist, Sergio Ciomei, whose legato touch formed a velvet glove around her every whim.
In the songs of Bellini and Donizetti -- and especially the inspired songs from many periods of Rossini’s life -- Bartoli remains in total command, characterizing everything with all the punctuation and polish you would want. She captured the excitement of the boat race in Rossini’s mini cycle “La regata veneziana” and played the ruthless tease to perfection in his “La grande coquette.”
She playfully tripped through the words in a rubato-filled “Me voglio fa na casa” by Donizetti and rolled her Rs with relish in a military ditty, “Rataplan,” by Malibran herself. I would have preferred a more rhythmic approach in Rossini’s whirling “La danza,” but that’s a minor quibble.
There were three encores, the most interesting being Xavier Montsalvatge’s Afro-Spanish “Canto negro.”