Classical Music Diary: Cecilia Bartoli at Carnegie Hall, Verdi at the Met; Levine Conducts Mahler

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Tuesday, Feb. 20: An evening with Cecilia Bartoli is a rollercoaster, and she usually leaves you thrown. The Italian mezzo-soprano is about the most maddening, most infuriating musician in the world?and she is also about the most popular, give or take a tenor or two. Rarely in music has so much vulgarity been so rapturously hailed.

La Bartoli is in Carnegie Hall tonight with an all-Vivaldi program, accompanied by the Italian original-instruments group Il Giardino Armonico. She has a small but pleasing voice. It is impressively flexible, with a range that rises easily to a high C. And there is no denying that Bartoli can be an engaging stage presence. But she fills you with worry right off the bat: her passagework is effortful, and extremely detached. She is indulging in her blocky, disjointed, unsmooth singing?a mode that comes and goes. She is also jerking her head a lot, which is the kind of mannerism reflected in her vocal production. In all, she is a technical mess, Cecilia as Raw Talent, needing heaps of discipline and polish.

Her singing of the "Domine Deus" from the Gloria is shocking?a disgrace. She is a proudly romantic singer, yes, but her treatment of this sacred music is past romantic into sensual. It doesn't help matters that she is rolling her head around and swooning as if she were doing a bedroom scene. Just as bad is the aria from Juditha Triumphans that comes next, "Armatae face," a fast and furious piece that Marilyn Horne used to do hair-raisingly. Bartoli, however, is far too fast and uncontrolled, spitting out her syllables in order to express fury, but doing so indistinctly and unmusically. She (and her audience) thinks that she's being exciting, but she is instead grotesque. And her intonation is out the window. Seldom do you hear a piece of music so disfigured.

It's at times like this that I ask myself, How did this woman get famous? Why does she command millions of fans and dollars while?just to choose a favorite personal example?the soprano Faith Esham is forced to sing her world-class Traviatas in high school auditoriums up in New Hampshire? Disfigurement is a Cecilia Bartoli specialty: I once heard her sing the "Séguidille" from Carmen and could barely recognize it. It had been thoroughly Bartolized, put through this weird charismatic blender to emerge as something entirely different, and worse.

Indeed, Bartoli is the most self-indulgent of singers, edging out Jessye Norman for the prize. She is Bernstein with a voice. (I meant Bartoli, but the same might be said of Norman.) Every composer's score is a vehicle for her mere self-presentation. She sings in caricature. She constantly wears her heart on her sleeve. But isn't that what an opera singer is supposed to do? you may ask. No: the best employ some reserve, just as a woman doesn't use her entire makeup table on her face all at once. Bartoli, musically, appears in clown paint.

And yet?this is the up part of the rollercoaster?she is capable of some really lovely singing, as in the Vivaldi aria "Zeffiretti che sussurate" from Ercole su'l termodonte. Her phrasing, dynamics and conceptual approach are all exquisite. But she's soon back to her old tricks. She has a habit, for example, of letting her voice get disembodied?it actually stops "phonating," in a highly unpleasant way. She means to express fragility, but other singers manage to do this without abandoning their techniques. In "Gelido in ogni vena" from Farnace, Bartoli shows that she does plangency well?but then she overdoes it, as she overdoes everything, applying that clown paint.

As I listen to the audience scream and stamp their feet and worship, I think, once again, of the puzzlement that is Bartoli: so much talent, yet so heedless of the simple yet vital rules of music?rules that allow for greater emotional expression than she can dream of with her hamming, clowning and disfiguring. She is still a young singer, but, like most people, is not getting any younger. She can't be excused on "raw phenom" grounds forever. To quote a song not written by Vivaldi, "Cecilia, you're breaking my heart. You're shaking my confidence daily."


Thursday, March 8: Nabucco was Verdi's third opera, and his first real success?he never had to scrounge for work again. If we know an excerpt from it, it's probably the chorus "Va, pensiero," the "chorus of the Hebrew slaves," as it is sometimes described. Nabucco is staged fairly regularly in Italy, but is a rarity here. Tonight marks the first performance of the work at the Metropolitan Opera in 40 years.

The soprano role is Abigaille, one of the great voice-wrecking, career-ending roles in opera. It makes Minnie from La Fanciulla del West and the title role in Turandot look like gentle little bel canto parts. Sacrificing herself for this production is the Ukrainian diva with an Italian-sounding name, Maria Guleghina. She has an interesting, dark-toned voice, with a little Callas in it. Tonight she has to fight for everything she gets. Every high note, every difficult passage, is Tension City, as the first President Bush would say. At the end of a big early scene, Guleghina just manages to nick a high D, about killing herself in the process. Throughout the opera, she is frayed and straining, but she is brave. She's "singing like there's no tomorrow," as we sometimes say in such circumstances?she's keeping nothing in reserve, not saving herself for anything. I think of Hildegard Behrens as Elektra and as Brünnhilde. Like Behrens, Guleghina is a fine actress, acting as much with her voice?and this is key in opera?as with her body. You can imagine a more beautiful performance, but it's hard to imagine a more compelling one. Besides which, someone has to do it, if we're to have the pleasure of this opera.

Singing the part of the High Priest is Samuel Ramey, very much a High Priest kind of singer, a great Verdi bass who is demonstrating amazing longevity. He is a little stentorian tonight, but this does no harm. He delivers a surprising, solid high G early on; later, he is genuinely moving in a little cantilena. There is a bit of a wobble in his voice now, but his intonation is unshakable, and he gives every appearance of having years left in him. So does the baritone Juan Pons, singing the title role. His voice is a little rough and fuzzy, and he tires somewhat toward the end, but generally, like Ramey, he is a rock?and Nabucco needs two such stalwarts in the low male roles.

Our tenor is the suavely named Francisco Casanova, who sings with power, but also with some effort. What's more, he sharps. Like the leading lady, he has to fight for everything he gets, and in a much less demanding role. Our mezzo-soprano is Wendy White, who has some throb in her voice, as do the best Verdi mezzos. She handles her smallish but important part with aplomb. The true star of the evening?cliche as it may be to note?is the Met chorus. Nabucco is a heavily choral opera, one of the most choral in the entire repertory. The Met's chorus is adaptable, disciplined and superb. Under the direction of James Levine, it and the orchestra seem to function as a single instrument. "Va, pensiero" is, quite simply, ideal, both "horizontal" and "vertical"?having lyricism and legato, and also structural force and uplift. The audience gives it one of the longest mid-opera ovations I have ever heard. Then Levine repeats the chorus, in a true encore.

Nabucco may be no threat to Otello or Falstaff as a work of music, but it is a true Verdian achievement, and Levine makes a first-rate case for it, delivering a performance of great sweep and guts.


Sunday, March 11: In Carnegie Hall we have the same conductor and the same orchestra, but in a v

astly different work: Mahler's final symphony, his Ninth. This is one of the most profound statements in music, and a successful performance of it depends largely on pacing, on breathing. The Ninth is a long, long wordless song. It must be kept moving?it seems like such a simple thing, but many conductors fail in it. The Met's sound is, as usual, dark and even a little rough, but not in a negative sense. Levine conducts in an open, straightforward way. His is a Ninth without neuroses, simply played rather than contorted. He leads it with the same sturdiness of purpose with which he might conduct Beethoven or Schumann. Levine favors direct communication; nothing is overly psychologized or cryptic. He doesn't actually do much, either, keeping gestures to a bare minimum, sort of like Fritz Reiner. He trusts his players?they know him, and he knows them.

This is not a technically polished performance. There are distracting flubs in the brass, and ensembleship is a little loose. The second movement could be crisper, jauntier?it is extremely pesante. But the unison playing at the beginning of the last movement has real emotional power, blessedly free of bathos. This movement is the holy of holies in symphonic music. It is an elegy, a farewell. Momentum in it is everything?and Levine always gives it a pulse. Only in the concluding few pages does he lose it, bringing the song to a halt, rather milking it, in my view. But this has been a deeply satisfying reading. I have the feeling not of having heard a Mahler Ninth from a particular conductor in a particular way, but of simply having heard the Mahler Ninth, which is astonishing.


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