[Photo Credit: DECCA; scan from the “Sacrificium” Booklet, p.29]
Reviewing Bartoli recordings tends to to be a question not of “is this disk good or bad?” but of “how good is it?”.
More so, Bartoli recordings have turned into phenomena that need to be contextualized. Much of the merits of “Sacrificium” aren’t directly audible on the disk, first and foremost the fact that Bartoli went and –once more– dug up little heard or completely forgotten music in painstaking archive research.
Then there is the well-rounded and thorough try to shed some light on the opera castrato era not only from a musical, but also from a sociological point of view (granted, within limits, but the approach alone is more than noteworthy). “Sacrificium” is not just beautiful music well sung, or well (and a little sensationalist) sold, but an offer that comes with a dictionary of considerable weight and rich in imagery that invites more reflection that the average “castrato aria” disk: beautiful singing, yes. But in a context, and the context in this case is that the handful of famed castrati are accompanied by a much bigger crowd of castrated men who had no musical career at all.
It must have been a costly project – as a Ph.D. candidate facing print costs, I nearly fainted at the amount of color pictures – and if you read the small print, there’s a note that the Spanish region of Castilla y León has donated to the disk that was also recorded on its territory, in Valladolid.
In several interviews, Bartoli has called “Sacrificium” her most difficult project to date, both for the enormous technical demands of the music, and the harsh background of the reality this music was created against.
That Bartoli’s technique is splendid is nothing new and upon listening, I couldn’t shake the impression that she enjoyed the challenge of matching her experience and expressiveness to these arias.
The composers selected range from the slightly more known (Porpora, Graun) to the less prominent like Leo, Vinci and Caldara and completely new names – I hadn’t heard of Araia before. The “Discovery disk” is balanced by a ‘bonus disk’ with three “legendary” castrato arias, including the only mainstream number, Handel’s “Ombra mai fù”, Broschi’s “Son qual nave” that gained popularity with the Farinelli movie in the mid-nineties and “Sposa, non mi conosci” in the Giacomelli version (not the Vivaldi).
The program is, in one word, gutsy. Just one mainstream number out if fifteen arias. Needless to say that I’m loving it.
And Bartoli, throughout the booklet and from aria to aria, takes the curious listener along on a journey towards the little known. Snobby prejudices of “pure technical show-off pieces” are misplaced and are also addressed in the introductory notes that contextualize each aria (p. 20ff.).
Of course, the question has to be allowed whether bravura show-off of technical abilities would have to be a bad thing if it happened. Only because we’re still doomed by Rousseau’s verdict of naturalness and authenticity, there’s no reason to scoff at the filigree catalog of vocal affect gestures Bartoli takes on with “Sacrificium”.
Bartoli does find a middle way in between presenting this complex catalog in all its artistry and imbuing it with personal color and more direct emotiveness (on a side note: allowing interesting comparisons with e.g. Genaux’s “Usignuolo” recording and Derek Lee Ragin’s “Son qual nave”!).
Is that mannerist?
Sure it is.
Is that bad?
A big part of these arias is the extreme technical prowess they use to create emotion. Ignoring this part would mean a flat and boring recording.
As it is, “Sacrificium” sparkles with colors and details like a Baroque Italian church – the kind of thing that has you completely overwhelmed if you look at it for too long. Listening to the entire “Sacrificium” album without a break after every other aria may make your ears feel that kind of blind after a while – there is too much there to catch, to take in and to appreciate.
And it is very much alla Bartoli – the sound that moves along the roof of the mouth, reminiscent of very early Baroque, the flutter of color in the depth of her throat, the audible, interpreting breaths that have body and flesh on their own. There are the miniature caresses of single lines, the ability to reduce all ornaments in favor of one golden thread of sound, and then again the impressive dynamic range that seems to play with colors of its own.
The sound is not pure and aseptic, and in this aspect perfectly aligned with Il Giardino Armonico under Giovanni Antonini, who play up in their full-bodied, scratchy, three-dimensional style. This music is so alive that you think you can smell it.
To put it into an Italian metaphor: this is not Milan on a well-cleaned and reserved October morning, tie perfectly knotted.
This is Naples.
Bartoli is at the height of her game with this recording, topping even her own “Opera proibita” in terms of technical prowess. Just put on the Araia (No. 3) and revel in the cooing and protesting (those chesty low notes sure don’t hurt, either), the strutting and whispering along the endlines lines of passaggi like the tiny trills at 1:05.
Or take Popora’s “Parto, ti lascio” (No. 4) – the simple calls at 2:13, cast into the orchestra sound as if waiting for an echo, the pronunciation at 2:48 that turns the word “lascio” into a veritable dish or the piano line starting at 3:20 that makes you hold your breath lest you interrupt the sound.
The only thing this album can be accused of is of being too much – too much color, too much detail, too much elaboration, just like a Baroque church. Then again, you wouldn’t want to live in a church. But this recording could certainly make you want to go every Sunday morning.
Also, if you’re a mezzo and you’ve made a project that deals with gender perceptions and possibly challenges them, too, how do you know whether you have succeeded?