The best performers marshall and release a special energy that sweeps up anyone within its force field. Italian mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, one of those rare beasts, pounces on us again today with the release of another album of wonders: Mission, dedicated to forgotten composer Agostino Steffani (1654-1728).
This Decca album of 21 arias and four duets — all but three in their world-premiere recording on CD — with equally charismatic French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky is spectacularly sung and richly accompanied by period-instrument ensemble I Barocchisti under leader Diego Fasolis.
This is a showcase for the art of singing at its very finest, where every note, inflection, breath, trill and phrase serves the art of translating the score into a meaningful experience for the listener.
It’s something Bartoli (and Jaroussky) has made a life’s mission. In the past, there have been times when the mezzo’s exertions have seemed a bit much, like an overdecorated cake with more cream than substance. But thanks to the smart layering of bravura arias with more introspective material, the album unfolds like its own opera.
Bartoli has also restrained her penchant for melodramatic sighs in favour of silken legatos as she lets her remarkable voice and technique work their magic.
There is a lot to admire in the background to this album. Bartoli, a compulsive seeker, has gone out before to dig up interesting music wrapped in stories long buried in the annals of European music history.
Here, we get a glimpse of the music and life of a fascinating character who went from being a choirboy in Padua to Roman Catholic bishop charged with bringing Protestant North Germans back into the papist fold.
Somewhere in the whirlwind that was this man’s life, he managed to write a number of operas that, judging from the music on this disc, are every bit as worthy of our attention as those of Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel.
As the 48 pages of background in the CD package point out, Steffani fell through history’s cracks because he spent so much time in Germany: He wasn’t German, so that country’s music historians didn’t pay attention, yet he didn’t spend enough time in Italy to establish a legacy in any one place.
Steffani’s is a story filled with intrigue, changes of vocation and location and even, according to Bartoli, that he was a castrato. There’s so much potential here that Bartoli inspired novelist Donna Leon to spin the pieces into her latest bit of historical fiction, The Jewels of Paradise.
The massive marketing juggernaut that someone like Cecilia Bartoli can muster means there’s even an iPad game associated with the album.
But all of this would be totally meaningless without the main ingredient, fabulous music — and one couldn’t ask for better than what we hear in Mission. This is a must-listen for fans of Baroque opera, and, thanks to the quality of the musicmaking, something everyone else should at least sample, as well.
For more on the album, click here.
Here’s a sample that shows off the seductive interplay between Bartoli and Jaroussky, “T’abbraccio mia diva,” from Niobe, regina di Tebe: