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Cecilia Bartoli: “St. Petersburg” 

spacer I Barocchisti, Fasolis. Texts and translations. Decca 28947-86767

The Empress of Discovery

Cecilia Bartoli unearths a treasure trove of obscure arias composed for performance at the eighteenth-century court of St. Petersburg.

BartoliStPeteCD

The relentlessly curious Cecilia Bartoli investigates the birth of opera in Russia with world-premiere recordings of arias by Italian and German composers based at the eighteenth-century court of St. Petersburg. The richly detailed program booklet includes superb essays on the three empresses — Anna Ioannovna, Elizaveta Petrovna and Catherine II (“the Great”) — who patronized and cultivated Italian opera seria in Russia, as well as plenty of historical background and notes on the repertory itself.

Bartoli was turned loose in the manuscript archives, so the selections, mid-eighteenth-century arias in the vein of Hasse, Pergolesi and early Mozart, suit her to a tee. Languid cantabiles alternate with vigorous showpieces. Although her excessively close miking throws off the orchestral balance, Bartoli turns her keen musical personality to the lyrical shapes and gestures of this style, and her clean, instrumental approach is highly satisfying. 

When composer Nicola Porpora turned down the gig, Francesco Araia, a Neapolitan, became Russia’s first official court composer in 1735 and, after presenting operas in Italian, composed the first opera in Russian, to the Ovidian myth of Cefalus and Procris. Nothing from that seminal work is heard here, but excerpts from Seleuco and La Forza dell’Amore e dell’Odio (the haunting “Vado a morir” provides a captivating lead-off track) reveal Araia’s compositional excellence. 

A German, Hermann Raupach, took over Araia’s position in 1759, and excerpts from his Altsesta (the familiar story of Alceste’s sacrifice) present Bartoli’s first recordings in Russian. “Razverzi pyos gortani, laya,” Hercules’s boastful entry to Hades, includes the typical bravura techniques of vigorous string writing, repeated notes and trumpet punctuation, while Alceste’s “Idu na smert” highlights Bartoli’s sweet lyricism in a gentle, noble-sounding farewell. 

Vincenzo Manfredini ran the Italian opera company under Catherine the Great, and two arias from his Carlo Magno reveal even more of Bartoli’s versatility. The heavy, tragic phrases of the minor-key “Fra’ lacci tu mi credi” suddenly shift to angry triplet roulades, while “Non turbar que’ vagi rai” finds her cultivating a delicate timbre to match the easy figuration and sweet high notes of the solo flute. 

Bartoli’s vocal mannerisms are well known, and conductor Diego Fasolis generates faux excitement with rushed and pressed tempos that only highlight the scratchy and glassy string sound and the singer’s throaty coloratura, now belabored and even shapeless. Yet Bartoli can spin a thread of sound captivatingly and seems especially inspired to sweet, rounded tones by the many expressive and beautifully shaped wind solos. It’s a pity that no accompanied recitatives are included; in these, her musical imagination and fine sense of text are always satisfyingly employed.

Booklet extras include attractive illustrations of eighteenth-century St. Petersburg, and of the three Empresses, along with a timeline that compares Russia to Europe and the rest of the world between 1730 and 1796. Plenty of photos of Bartoli at work and at play will satisfy her fans. spacer 

JUDITH MALAFRONTE  

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