In times past, prima donnas used to get out on the road. Some still do. Cecilia Bartoli’s “Maria Malibran” tour is travelling from London on to Basel, Nuremberg, Bremen, and throughout eight c ountries of Europe (including her first appearance in Wales) until June of next year. And she is taking her van with her.
The tour focuses on the life and music of the celebrated early 19th-century prima donna Maria Malibran and the mobile museum, which has been parked outside St Giles’s Church at the Barbican this week, is displaying Bartoli’s collection of her effects – letters, playbills, and perhaps something of her spirit, too.
This exhumation of the past is conceived with a very modern eye to marketing. As with most of Bartoli’s previous winter tours, the live performances are designed to advertise her latest CD, but what makes it worth doing is how vividly she brings the past to life.
Seeing her throwing herself into the music on the Barbican stage, with those old Bartoli mannerisms – the gasps of elation, the arms trembling with the electricity of the moment – is like being in the presence of a woman possessed. No doubt every effect is rehearsed to a tee, but she gives the impression she is living it all for real, and that is surely what the great Malibran experience must have been about.
In one other respect, too, the fit is ideal. Voices have become bigger since the 19th century and the modest scale of Bartoli’s mezzo is a lot more “authentic” than other singers of this repertoire in living memory. With the period instruments of the Orchestra La Scintilla Zürich she gives what is probably a very accurate idea of performances in Malibran’s day – not “anything you can sing I can sing louder”, but a display of agility, delicacy and sheer charisma.
It was a generous programme. The closing scene from Bellini’s La sonnambula might have been more brilliant (is Bartoli’s voice gradually disappearing at the top, or was that the lingering effect of her recent cold?) but the big solos from Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Otello were marvellously involving. Even an aria from Persiani’s long-forgotten Ines de Castro cast a powerful spell. Though 150 years have passed, the art of showmanship has not changed.
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