THERE'S a new talent on the opera horizon. Her records are clamoring up the Billboard Classical Charts, and her concerts are a field day for scalpers. Even at the young age of 27, she's rapidly taking the place of Kathleen Battle as the world's most adulated prima donna, and she doesn't have an attitude problem.
On the contrary. Cecilia Bartoli is a warm, at times even bubbly, stage presence, a communicator par excellence who takes - and gives - genuine pleasure in delivering the messages of her favorite composers, Mozart and Rossini. She presented their work last Friday evening as part of the final program in New York's "Mostly Mozart Festival" at Lincoln Center.
Bartoli is the real item: a coloratura mezzo-soprano with a seamless range, capable of incredible feats of vocal athleticism. The voice is absolutely distinctive, light in weight but dark in tone, agile yet substantive. Her control is complete, her musicianship thorough; listening to Bartoli ornament a melody is an experience in itself, the aural equivalent of liquid gold pouring over intricate latticework.
Friday's concert (the program was repeated Saturday) was a bit of a homecoming, for it was at Mostly Mozart that the Italian mezzo made her American debut three years ago. The vocal offerings on this occasion included three Mozart pieces and two Rossini arias as encores, all accompanied by Gerard Schwarz and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. The evening opened and closed with Mozart's Symphony No. 28 and No. 39.
Along the way were two engaging diversions, David Diamond's orchestrations of Ravel's "Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn" and Debussy's "Hommage a Haydn." The former, sounding quite a bit more like Ravel than Haydn, was a richly colored little gem.
Of course, the real jewels of the evening were Bartoli's performances. Dressed in full-skirted, strapless yellow satin, her long auburn curls tumbling down her back, Bartoli approached her fare with seasoned poise, bubbling her way through the Alleluia section of Mozart's "Exsultate, jubilate," which, on this occasion, was dedicated in a touchingly written program note to the late soprano Arleen Auger, for whom it was a signature piece.
Bartoli tossed off its quickly paced trills, scales, and repeated notes with delicacy, froth, and dead-on accuracy, while warmly caressing its slower moving moments. She wrapped Mozart's "Lungi le cure ingrate" (from "Davidde penitente") in a tightly coiled vibrato, and then applied a breathtakingly unadorned straight tone to that composer's "Parto, parto" (from "La clemenza di Tito").
The Rossini encores - brought on by cheering, foot stomping, and other enthusiastic gestures from this usually staid audience - were nothing short of astonishing, almost making the Mozart pieces seem ordinary by comparison. Once again, that combination of depth of tone with impeccable marksmanship made the coloratura work of "Tanti affetti" (from "La Donna del Lago") come to sparkling life, while "Una voce poco fa" from "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" was delivered at a breakneck tempo with infectious humor. B artoli has learned how to work a crowd, although still with a certain innocence.
At her tender age, she is still in love with singing. Eyebrows raised, broad shoulders squared, she reveals a wide-eyed enthusiasm, even surprise, for the luscious sounds that pour forth. ("Pavarotti once said he thought God had kissed his vocal cords," she has said. "I think he kissed mine too.") She's a joy to watch, apparently untarnished by the music-business machinery that has rocketed her to stardom in less than four years.
Bartoli and Schwarz enjoyed a solid musical rapport. He and his players provided a flexible, balanced backdrop for her relatively light voice. (Apparently the reason she is not as much of a star at home is because Italian audiences prefer big arena-filling voices.) Generally speaking, the orchestra on its own came up with some nicely shaded interpretations, particularly of the opening work. The slow movement was gracefully phrased, while the finale fairly blew by in a well-articulated bustle.
From here, Bartoli tours Japan with the Mostly Mozart Players before embarking on an extensive European concert tour. One hopes that, especially at this relatively early stage in her career, she will pace herself. A voice like hers may be worth millions, but it's also worth protecting.