Cecilia Bartoli shines in a splendid Semele at the Zurich Opera
Zurich, 8th January 2019
Photo: Zurich Opera
Is there any mortal creature in this world more able to withstand the supernatural powers of a god other than Cecilia Bartoli ? As Semele in Handel’s 17th century oratorio of the same name, meant for the Lenten season, the Zurich Opera diva of 30 years, perishes in sexual agony after demanding to be exposed to the godly form of Jupiter, with whom she has been having an affair. Why struggle to be a goddess, when in performance she already displays forbidding superhuman powers, showcased in her formidable act 3 mirror aria “Myself I Shall Adore”. Here, in front of her eternal nemesis Juno in disguise, she performs a scintillating coloratura, that continues uninterrupted with marathon endurance and absolute perfection. La Cecilia now in her 50ies showed her complete mastery of the coloratura style in her diction, her range of vocal ability, the resonance of her voice and tonal prowess that sucked the air out of everybody’s breath in the opera hall.
How can Handel explain this Lenten oratorio replete with sexual gymnastics between god and mortal other than by continually striking forth the underlying moral teaching: that we should always remember to maintain humility, modesty and reverence to the familial (Christian)strength of our society without overreaching our stations.
From the outset we observe Semele (Bartoli) stretching the boundaries of accepted human behavior by refusing to marry Athamus (Christophe Dumaux), her father, Cadmus’ (Nahuel DiPierro) choice for a husband only to take Jupiter (Frederic Antoun) as her lover. Then she continues her outrageous behavior by obsessing on her beauty in the mirror scene and finally insisting on becoming immortal. Even the lavish gifts and lifestyle that Jupiter bestows on her are not enough to contain the bottomless cravings of a pampered lover.
Juno (Katarina Bradic) as the jealous and spurned wife of Jupiter becomes the moral compass of this extramarital and human /god aberration by doing everything in her power to rectify this threat to the natural order of the universe that undermines the delicate balance between humans and the gods. The bulk of Act Two is taken up with the often comical machinations of Juno and her lovable sidekick Iris (Rebeca Olvera) as they conceive a remarkable plot to make Semele disappear. In this gargantuan effort she allies with Somnus (Nahuel DiPierro), god of slumber, to put the dragons guarding Semele asleep, penetrate Jupiter’s dreams and by impersonating Semele’s sister Ino (Deniz Uzun) manipulate Semele to ask Jupiter for the death wish of experiencing him in his true, destructive form.
Juno’s plot is remarkably successful. Semele perishes, Ino marries Athamus, and the divine order is restored. In the ashes of Semele’s death, the new god Bacchus is born as a balm to all humankind and a tribute to the tragic memory of an ill fortuned and immoral affair. Juno is once again enthroned besides her husband Jupiter, wine in hand, but must remain forever vigilant as another beautiful rival attracts the eye of her unfaithful husband.
Handel’s opera Semele is a groundbreaking work displaying a wide range of beautiful music, lyrical arias, amusing plot twists and turns and rich material for philosophical discussion. In the visionary hands of director Robert Carson, he uses minimal set design and special effects to create a credible backdrop to the supernatural world evoked in the opera. Along with lighting designer Peter van Praet, Carson uses incandescent light at the outset to convey the presence and intervention of the immortals. Just off stage, blinding Semele, Athamus and the assembled guests as they walk down the aisle on red carpet, the harsh light of Jupiter overrides any possibility for Semele to continue to enter into a marriage ordained by her father. In the face of this blinding light and off-stage thunder, the guests are scattered and Semele proceeds into her adulterous assignation unperturbed by her moral obligations and societal mores. The arrival of sister Ino to Semele's heavenly bedroom is also evoked by a crack in the door bleeding the blinding solar light of heaven into the boudoir.
Juno and Iris plotting revenge Photo: Zurich Opera
The comical aspects of the opera as employed by Carson creates a much needed balance to the parochial message underlying the opera. Carson uses anachronistic techniques such as newspaper headlines (“It's official: Semele and Jupiter”) and plane tickets to create levity and portrays Juno as the Queen of England. Props such as a blue globe symbolizing cosmology and contemporary bedroom negligee add to the mirth. The portrayal of Somnus, god of sleep and the cavorting of Iris and Juno with glaring flashlights, should be immortalized as the greatest accomplishment of this opera.
Stumbling through the prostrate bodies of the sleeping universe, Iris attempts to find Somnus amid scattered bodies, groggily awaken him and get him to do their bidding only after an hilarious promise of copulation with one Pasithea. The mirror scene is another comic interlude even though the audience is aware it will lead to Semele’s death. Here Katarina Braddic as Juno in disguise, convinces the vain Semele to demand to experience Jupiter in his godlike form which we know will lead to a horrible death. Gazing into the mirror while singing words of self-adulation in continuous coloratura, Cecilia Bartoli climbs the heights of vocal gymnastics. Juno goads her on with minimal effort and yawns with rolling eyes as Semele gets more and more convinced of her own path to glory as the audience laughs with uncontrollable laughter at this slapstick routine.
William Christie, simultaneously plays the cembalo harpsichord while conducting the Zurich period orchestra La Scintilla with great enthusiasm and cheerfulness. The youthful ensemble so earnestly embrace Handel’s euphoric music that it abounds with high energy and overriding joy. The prelude for instance is performed by a group of musicians whose every down beat is internalized and deeply expressed. In this oratorio that requires such a profound balance between soloist and music, the accompaniment is without flaw. Both in Mr. Antoun's solo “Where'er You Walk” and Ms. Bartoli's
coloratura masterpiece “Myself I Shall Adore” there was such a keen understanding and embrace of voice and lyric by the orchestra that only the slightest music could be heard. In the give and take juxtaposition of voice and music in the coloratura section, the timing and volume as well, exhibited a training and mastery only a few orchestras can attain. The overall effect feels like one is constantly
immersed in an ecstatic lullaby of the music of the spheres
It would also be remiss to end this review without a mention of the glorious opera house we were so fortunate to inhabit while watching the beautiful production of Semele. The restored opera house is an ornate building with a neo-classical facade of white and grey stone adorned with the busts of Weber, Wagner and Mozart, Schiller, Shakespeare and Goethe. The auditorium is built in the neo-rococo style and seats 1200 people but its sheer opulence and lavish interior gives the illusion of being inside a royal palace. At first sight one is blinded by the golden light emanating from the facades, balconies and ceiling surfaces juxtaposed by the deep red fabric on the orchestra seats. Then comes the impression of the art work both sculptural and painted which feels more like the Uffizi palace than an opera house. At closer inspection every surface is adorned with lovely murals. Each support is upheld by a different Greek statue and every effort was made to give a sense of luxury and elegance. Clearly performing opera in a structure like this must inspire the performers to offer their best ability and endeavor.
Photo: Zurich Opera
La Cecilia celebrates 30 years of excellence at the Zurich Opera
with a Gala benefit concert for the International Opera Studio
Zurich, 10th January 2019
Photo: Zurich Opera
It was an embarrassment of riches to hear Cecilia Bartoli in her role as Semele in Handel’s opera of the same name on one day, followed up two days later by an exclusive gala benefit concert for the International Opera Studio, the Zurich Opera’s program in support of young opera talent.
This remarkable chain of events allowed us to enjoy a back to back concert of arguably one of the greatest mezzo soprano talents of our generation. Since Ms. Bartoli at 52, rarely sings in the United States at this point in her career, we made the effort to cross the Atlantic upon hearing of this great opportunity to observe the legendary La Cecilia in two very different offerings.
In Semele, the previous night we listened to the great diva in complete command of the coloratura genre singing Handel’s challenging music with absolute accuracy, tonal lyricism and impeccable style. In the gala concert, the unfettered Mrs. Bartoli sang from an illustrious variety of compositions that she had sung over her 30-year career as a diva in the opera world choosing from the great composers of the operatic genre: Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart and Rossini. These had become the signature pieces of her career, sung in her inimitable style, reinforcing her relationship with the Zurich Opera and most importantly showcasing her formidable talents and mastery of the mezzosoprano coloratura form.
La Cecilia was accompanied by the Orchestra La Scintilla conducted by Gianluca Capuano and an illustrious ensemble of co-soloists including the tenor Javier Camarena, baritones Huw Montague Rendall and Dean Murphy, Mezzosoprano Sinead O’Kelly and Soprano Justina Bluj, that had been in her musical family throughout her career. The concert had the feeling of a joyous reunion of friends, colleagues equally devoted to the most excellent pursuit of operatic performance.
The orchestra, following its spot-on appearance in Semele, showed its profound ability for accompaniment especially in respecting the vocalists’ range and ability to modulate their volume controls. Equally outstanding was the juxtaposition of three virtuoso solo musicians Maria Goldschmidt, flute, Philip Mahrenholz, oboe and Thibaud Robinne, trumpet that accompanied Ms. Bartoli in a recitative style call and reply technique where the voice answers the musical line laid down by the instrument. The difficulty factor of this kind of singing is multiplied exponentially and can only be pulled off by a select few singers of which Ms. Bartoli scales to the height of vocal musical gymnastics and ornamentation.
The concert begins as la Cecilia explodes on the stage with an elegant frilly frock coat and long black boots launching into an unbridled attack with her coloratura mastery of “Quell’augellin” from La Silvia by Antonio Vivaldi. The next offering is not a song, but a prayer as Ms. Bartoli channels the voice of God in the luxuriant Vivaldi aria “Non ti lusinghi la crudeltade”
from Tito Manlio. Accompanied by flute soloist Maria Goldschmidt and Michael Richter on the klavier, she showcases her full emotional mastery of the mezzosoprano range and her ability to express a religious almost sacred connection to the music. But still yet to come was the most remarkable demonstration of Ms. Bartoli’s skills and vocal prowess as she sings “Destero dall’empia dite” from Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula. Flanked by Thibaud Robinne’s trumpet and Philip Mahrenholz’s oboe she is prompted by their musical lines and responds with an exact vocal duplication, except that her vocal responses are accurate, powerful and clear, leaving the audience gaping incredulously at the stage in wonderment.
We take a short break and as the gala concert precedes as La Bartoli changes her outfit for the upcoming Mozart portion of the recital. For Don Giovanni she chooses a very provocative pink dress that shows off her generous proportions.
Now enter other solo vocalists who sing various Mozartean arias from Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte. The highlight of this segment is without question “Fra gli amplessi in pochi istanti” with tenor Javier Camarena as Ferrando.
The short in stature, but grand in voice Camarena has long been a favorite accompanist of Bartoli and a long- time member of the prestigious Zurich Opera House ensemble which gave him his first chance in 2007. In 2014, Camarena became only the 3rd singer in the history of the Metropolitan Opera to perform an encore on stage and we were personally present at the Met, when he was also asked to give an encore during “La Fille du regiment”.
In a short speech he acknowledged his strong relationship with the Zurich Opera House and its International Opera Studio and his special affection for Cecilia Bartoli, with whom he has sang multiple roles. The intensity of their rendition was unparalleled in both musical interpretation and acting prowess. The audience response is noteworthy, not only by the enthusiasm of their applause but also by the palpable affection, no, adulation vociferously expressed. This is not a random guest soloist appearing for her first opera, but a much beloved friend, family member, intimate, who has brought these listeners a lifetime of cherished music and soothed away a generation of cares and worries by the comforting sound of her voice and the most effervescent aspects of her personality.
The sold-out gala performance was a charity concert benefiting the Zurich Opera’s International Opera Studio. It was established in 1961 and has since then become one of the most important educational and training institutions for budding young opera singers. That such luminaries as Bartoli and Camarena would give their precious time and talent for this essential organization underscores the value and function that the Opera Studio has for the continued evolution of opera.The benefit recital ended with some lovely renditions from Rossini including Il barbiere di Seviglia, which was the pivotal turning point in Bartoli’s career both in Verona and Zurich and where the world first began to learn of this remarkable musical prodigy with the sumptuous voice of an angel able to effortlessly bridge the mezzo and soprano vocal range with unparalleled facilities, accuracy and limpid clarity.
She ended the night with one of many encores for an audience that refused to let her go but finally relented only when she showed signs of collapsing on stage, her generosity so embracing. It was Handel’s “Lascia chio pianga” from the opera Rinaldo an exquisite song about freedom, sacrifice and destiny that summed up the longing of a tortured soul and left the audience inspired and blessed by the heavenly and healing intonations of La Grande Cecilia.
Photo: Zurich Opera