Recording of February 2020: Farinelli

Cecilia Bartoli: Farinelli
Cecilia Bartoli, mezzo-soprano; Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Antonini, cond.
Decca 4850214 (24/96 download). 2019. Arend Prohmann, prod. and editor; Philip Siney, eng.
Performance: *****
Sonics: ****

When I first heard mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli in person some 29 years ago, at her West Coast debut in the "Cal Performances" series at Berkeley's Hertz Hall, she was just 24 years old. Along with the rest of the audience, I was astonished at her ability to ally phenomenal coloratura technique with an out-of-the-box range of expression—unheard since the prime of Maria Callas. It was clear why Decca had already signed her and released her first recording the year before, when she was just 23.

Astonishingly, 30 years later, Bartoli's musical powers have increased. On Farinelli's 11 tracks, she spans nearly three octaves and executes multi-octave leaps without apparent effort. Her embellishments remain as tasteful and consonant with the music's emotional expression as they were at the start of her career—but now they have grown more elaborate, demanding breath control attained by few. The individual notes in her rapid-fire coloratura are now more smoothly connected, with less of the idiosyncratic "shotgun" effect that divided opinion early in her career. Her tessitura, if anything, has risen, with freer and sweeter top notes. She can turn on a dime from some of the most limpid and lyrical singing on record to passages that boil with unbridled fury.

It seems natural that, after tackling the repertoire of her great predecessor Maria Malibran, on her 2007 album Maria, Bartoli would delve further back in time and follow the lead of others who have recorded arias written for Farinelli, the great 18th century Italian castrato. Her timing, though, is canny: Bartoli's album of castrati's songs comes at a time when gender fluidity is a key social (and legal) issue, and in a package featuring a photo of herself sporting a beard.

Farinelli was born Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi and tutored by Nicola Porpora, who composed a number of his most demanding operatic roles. Farinelli's fame spread quickly from Italy, where he debuted at age 15, to the rest of Europe, leading to his first appearance in Vienna in 1724. Upon encountering his phenomenal range, intonation, breath control, and technique, one composer after another wrote impossibly demanding music for him until 1737, when he became a chamber musician for King Philip V and thereafter confined his vocal activities to the relative privacy of the Spanish court.

Four of the strongest tracks on Farinelli are by Porpora. The album begins with his "Nell'attendere il mio bene" (I shall await my beloved) from the opera Polifemo (1735). Bartoli grows breathtakingly soft and sweet in the aria's demanding middle section, where her succession of perfect trills defies belief, before launching into the aria's take-no-prisoners coloratura reprise.

On Maria, Bartoli focused more on limpid lyricism than arias of fury. Here her singing knows no bounds. After Porpora's pastoral and lovely "Vaghi amori, grazie amate" (Pretty cupids, beloved graces), from La festa d'Imeneo, she turns up the heat and allows her voice to boil over with passion in Hasse's "Morte col fiero aspetto (The grim countenance of death), from Marc' Antonio e Cleopatra.

Abetted by instrumental embellishments, Bartoli delivers glowing, radiant highs and some surprisingly deep lows. Recorded at close range in the Salzburg Odeêon's intimate, wood-and-glass–lined Dorothea Porsche Saal and at the 900-seat Le Rosey Concert Hall in Rolle, Switzerland, her voice sounds natural and resonant, and the small baroque orchestra sounds surprisingly full. Don't miss the viola and organ duet in Caldara's "Questi al cor fin'ora ignoti" (I do not understand why my blood is rising within me) from La morte d'Abel.

Anyone wishing to assess the extent of Bartoli's mastery need only compare her recording of Porpora's beautiful 10-minute lyrical expanse "Alto Giove" (Almighty Jove), from Polifemo, with those by mezzo Julie Boulianne and countertenors Franco Fagioli and Philippe Jaroussky. Boulianne, who mostly avoids trills, sounds tame by comparison, and the accompaniment is rather staid. Fagioli, singing over a much heavier bass section and with electronically enhanced ambience, is a monster in his own right, but he lacks Bartoli's peerless emotional resonance. The very French Jaroussky is all pearly elegance and loveliness until he tries to turn up the heat—then his dynamic and expressive limitations become apparent.

Beyond her absolute technical mastery, Bartoli's ability to touch the heart as she sings from music's palpating core remains unmatched.—Jason Victor Serinus

volvic's picture

I looked up portraits of Farinelli and could find none with a beard. I thought castrati didn't have facial hair? Not sure why she's in beard mode. Will definitely make non-buyers of classical look twice.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

She's playing off the current trans phenomenon. She also wants you to look twice. More than twice, in fact.

Anton's picture

I sense this image will be strong in snowflake creation.

Anyway, I love tracking music reviews/reviewers...seeing where I drift in and out of concordance. I am in on this one with you.

All part of the giant cosmic Venn diagram of everyone's Venn diagrams!

volvic's picture

I read the marketing piece before I typed here on these pages, so I knew about the underlying thrust of her "hidden" or secondary message.

However,to the initial observer, who knows the history of Farrineli, and sees the cover for the first time, the first comment will be that the iconography is wrong; that castratos like Farrinelli did not have facial hair. This initial observation is found in comments on other sites from other music afficionados, they all made the same remark.

As for the connection with the trans movement, I gloss over that, I honestly have no interest in it, what matters to me is the music and her voice which is just breathtaking. I do recommend everyone buy the CD or album or whatever, and just sit back and enjoy, it is truly amazing what she can do with her voice.

As for the cover, it is not the among the best ones I have seen, if she wants to look like Conchita Wurst that is her and her art director's business. I just hit the PLAY button and enjoy.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

How can it be possible for castrati to grow a beard? :-) .......

Anton's picture

This person is 53 years old, yet no grey!

An outrage!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be they had 'Just For Men' during 18th century? :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be they had 'Ageless Male' too in the 18th century? :-) .......

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Impossible but true: my explanation of the rationale for Bartoli's beard is incorrect. With thanks to Philip O'Hanlon for pointing me to it, here, in Cecilia Bartoli's very own words, is her explanation for her bearded photos, published Jan. 23 in The Guardian:

volvic's picture

And there you have it! TBH haven't put it down since I got it, fact - it's playing right now as I type these very words.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

You listened! Not that I wouldn't expect you to, given your love of classical music. If only everyone were willing to spend some time listening...

volvic's picture

I can't put it down, listened to her on the subway to work this morning. In the office now and don't want to draw too much attention by playing her too loud, so Vlado Perlemuter playing Mozart will do, till the subway ride back home when I'll play her again. It's good to be alive :)

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

And there you have it.

volvic's picture

The booklet that accompanies the CD is fantastic, gives a great timeline and history about Farinelli, another reason why I love the physical product. ;)

Graham Luke's picture

...and say anything negative about the album and one will be accused of 'transphobia'.

Briandrumzilla's picture

If it was an lp cover it would destined for a future collection of the worst album covers of all time.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The recording is available on vinyl:

I have read at least one professional critic of repute rail on and on about the photos. But photos are photos and music is music. The singing is brilliant.


Bogolu Haranath's picture

If they could have used the album cover of Nicki Minaj 'Queen' (or something similar), that could have been more appealing :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Or ..... Album cover similar to Charli XCX 'Charli', could have been alright too :-) .......

Ortofan's picture

... best make-up artist or visual effects?

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be not for Grammy Awards ..... but, certainly could qualify for Razzie Awards in the categories of make-up, hair styling and visual effects ...... Won't qualify for costume design category though :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Looking forward to JVS reporting from Florida Audio Expo, Tampa, Florida, Feb 7-9, 2020 :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Hello, New-Yorkers ....... Florida has nice weather in February and Tampa is a nice place to visit :-) .......

Bogolu Haranath's picture

If you get there to Florida by Sunday Feb. 2nd, you can watch the Super Bowl too in Miami :-) ........