Cecilia Bartoli's Sacrificium in Rome

Music by Händel, Porpora, Caldara, Araia, Leo, Vinci, Broschi, Scarlatti

Cecilia Bartoli on stage in Rome
Like an irresistible force of nature, superstar mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli took Rome by storm last night in a magnificent performance in front of a packed house in the appropriately named Sala Santa Cecilia at the Auditorium Parco della Musica. From the very second the divine Ms Bartoli swaggered on stage in knee high boots, draped in a scarlet-lined cape, with matching gloves, and sporting a tricorne hat, which she doffed to the audience in a sweeping bow, before casting it aside and beginning the first exhilarating aria Come nave, she already had the audience in the palm of her hand. This was going to be a wonderful, theatrical evening! She may have received some rough treatment from a handful of disgruntled opera goers at Milan's La Scala recently, but in Rome, where she was born, and also studied at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, she is clearly adored. I've never seen such a welcome for any classical artist at the Auditorium, or such boisterous enthusiasm towards a performer, with the Santa Cecilia regular audience swelled by huge numbers of Bartoli fans. She looked genuinely moved by the warmth of her reception.

The evening, entitled Sacrificium: La scuola dei castrati, was a showcase of arias from her Grammy award-winning recording of the same name, which commemorates the “sacrifice” of thousands of prepubescent Italian, mostly Neapolitan, boys during the early 18th century, who were castrated to stop their voices breaking, giving them male-strength soprano voices capable of performing highly virtuosic music. These hugely demanding arias were never intended to be performed by a woman, yet Cecilia Bartoli, an artist with an incomparable technique and phenomenal breath control, made this extraordinary feat look effortless. Exploring the “agony and the ecstasy” of the Neapolitan Castrati School, centuries after the agony of those mutilations Bartoli brings us the ecstasy of the music through her sublime voice. It was an utterly mesmerising performance.

She was accompanied by La Scintilla, under the direction of violinist Ada Pesch, an ensemble of Zurich Opera House players with a particular focus on historical music instruments, who were a perfect match for the ebullient Bartoli. In fact, the same musicians feature on her forthcoming Norma album, and there was an evidently happy complicity between orchestra and singer throughout the evening, particularly in the pieces where there was a playful dialogue between the instruments and voice such as Porpora's Usignolo sventurato where she was accompanied by two flutes, as well as taped bird song, and in her incredible coloraturas in the duet with oboe in Handel's M'adora l'idol mio, which she performed as the first of her three - or was it four? - encores.

During the evening she had slowly peeled off layers of clothing, but for the last songs she returned to the stage in the most elaborate and explicitly androgynous outfit of the evening – a stunning gold bodice, with its reams of dazzling red skirt fabric hitched up to reveal her black leggings and boots. She even added enormous red feathers for a Farinelli-style finale, which she would eventually toss into the air with joyous abandon at the end of the performance. The utterly deserved standing ovation was unanimous - the entire house was on its feet and cheering. As she left the stage, clutching bouquets of flowers, she waved a final goodbye: Grazie Roma!

Grazie Cecilia, for a wonderful concert.

Watch a very brief clip of Cecilia Bartoli's standing ovation in Rome below or click here to watch on YouTube.