Cecilia Bartoli at Cal Performances

Satin and sparkle

The dress said it all. Acres of iridescent midnight blue satin embellished with glittering, silvery rococo decorations, a bodice with no visual support above which lay fields of feminine pulchritude, and an ornament-bordered train that went on for some yards. Dazzling touches of light on that smooth skin: necklace and flashing ring.

When Cecilia Bartoli walked on the Zellerbach Auditorium stage in an outfit that could have been the physical manifestation of her singing, the audience broke into eager applause. She could have stood there, mouth closed, for the next two hours and still received ample applause for the mere presence of the Beauteous Bartoli. Instead, she sang, drawing her listeners more completely into awe and admiration over her impressive vocal skills.

Ostensibly, the program was meant to reflect Bartoli’s most recent Grammy-nominated CD, Maria, which celebrates the singing and even the composition of the legendary 19th-century diva, Maria Malibran. In fact, only two of the songs on the program are also on the disc. What is similar, though, is the category of singing, which almost all fell into the era of bel canto, that gracious period in opera singing when showy ornamentation—breath-defying runs that go on for measures, flowery ornamentation sung at breakneck speed—was the preference of singers and listeners alike.

The program included the big three of bel canto opera—Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti—as well as songs by Malibran’s father, the tenor Manuel Rodríguez García; another by her sister, soprano Pauline Viardot-García; and one by Maria Malibran herself.

A little more ornamentation, please

This is a kind of singing that Bartoli is especially good at. Her trills are perfectly agile, fluttering between notes—each one tonally dead center—and executed with lightning speed and dynamic precision. Most compelling, however, is her vocal color, which is silvery and pure. Not a large voice, a factor that may have kept her out of the cavernous depths of the San Francisco Opera House, but a perfectly amazing voice.

My favorite part of Bartoli’s singing was not the flashy vocal play but the pianissimo sections, of which she used quite a few throughout the program. In these, her voice’s silvery quality took on a delicacy that was both tender and poignant. She is so convincing in these moments, so wedded to the word—as in the Bellini song, “Dolente immagine di Fille mia”—that it is as if her thoughts were moving directly from her mind to yours, with all the shimmering mystery that implies.

What makes Bartoli an exceedingly popular artist is her ability to connect to the audience. Warm and earthy, even in satin, she addresses all sections of the audience— from front row to back balcony—while singing. And she also shares her wit with us, popping open her eyes at the end of a set of songs to share an ironic moment. Since 1991, when Robert Cole of Cal Performances first brought her to the East Bay and before her ascent into stardom, Bartoli has returned numerous times to Berkeley. Zellerbach Auditorium is the only Bay Area venue where she performs. She loves it; her audience adores it. Let’s hope that, even with Cole’s retirement, the love affair continues.

—Jaime Robles

Originally published in the Piedmont Post