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Cecilia Bartoli: "Mission"

spacer Music of Agostino Steffani. With Jaroussky, Delage; I Barocchisti, Fasolis. A film by Olivier Simonnet. Decca 074 3604, 60 mins., subtitled


Here is an irresistible opportunity to sample the operatic output of Agostino Steffani under luxurious conditions. Represented today by a handful of obscure recordings, this composer wrote beguilingly for the voice and had the gift — rare in Baroque opera — of crafting dramatically apt duets. To hear three of these intriguing contrapuntal ensembles performed by Cecilia Bartoli and countertenor Philippe Jaroussky — in the sumptuous setting of the Palais de Versailles — more than outweighs a certain lack of coherence or even dramatic substance in the oddly titled Mission.

Steffani (1654–1728) never set foot in Versailles, for example, whereas Olivier Simonnet's film shows the composer walking its glittering corridors, lurking in corners and doorways or, Svengali-like, pushing the two singers together for a confrontational duet. He hands Bartoli — in the "role" of La Musica — the handwritten score of an aria, on which the ink seems not yet dry. A composer/priest/diplomat, Steffani spent the bulk of his career in German courts, in buildings probably less photogenic than Versailles. Actor Franck Delage's voice-over provides some autobiographical background, referring to the composer's influence as a transitional figure "between Monteverdi and Vivaldi," his affinity with the music of Lully, and a non-musical career that eclipsed his artistic status. "And yet," we hear, "I was famous." The actor's voice also contrives to speak of his "mission" — more like a dream — of visiting Versailles in spirit, to present a concert that in fact never occurred.

A semblance of plot is framed by Bartoli's arrival, in late afternoon, in the Marble Court of the great palace and, at the end, by her departure by boat across a dark lake. The result is not so much a film as a filmed concert, with light fading outside the rococo windows and a sunset obligingly visible, at one point, from the terrace La Parterre du Midi. The "virtual" status of the scenario allows the figure of Steffani to coexist, in his period ecclesiastical garb, alongside musicians (the excellent I Barocchisti, led by Diego Fasolis) and singers in modern or timeless dress. 

Steffani's stylistic range and his vivid capacity to differentiate mood never flag. Selections vary widely in length, while the melody and style reflect roots as diverse as Renaissance arioso (the duet "All'impero divino divota," from Niobe, Regina di Tebe) or Germanic chorale ("Notte amica," from La Libertà Contenta) without straying far from elaborate Baroque patterning.

In the fiery "Combatton quest'alma," from I Trionfi del Fato (1695), a work based on Italian episodes from Virgil's Aeneid, Bartoli and Jaroussky face off across an ornate harpsichord and circle the room in mutual defiance, only to return in languorous love duets from Niobe. Their passionate delivery, clockwork counterpoint and echoing trills make their duets the supreme highlights here. In twenty excerpts from nine operas and one cantata, Bartoli's affection for the music is palpable, especially in her opulent cantabile line, with its spontaneous-seeming ornamentation, feather-light undulations and limitless shading. Her enthusiasm grows a little too aggressive in the raw staccato delivery of fast passagework, the only inelegant feature of her singing. A tendency to overdo the miming only testifies to the singer's missionary zeal. spacer


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