It was brave of Cecilia Bartoli to set out on tour with the music of the little-known Agostino Steffani. Many years ago Elisabeth Schwarzkopf used to announce recitals with “programme to be announced later” and then sprang the songs of her favourite, under-appreciated Hugo Wolf on the audience on the night. Bartoli trusts that her concerts will be sold out whatever she sings.
Her celebrity tours have become an annual ritual. Each year she plans a new programme on a hitherto obscure subject, which she then promotes as a CD and live concerts. This year’s Steffani tour, accompanied by the Kammerorchester Basel, is well under way with appearances in Brussels, Cologne, Amsterdam and Madrid, among others, still to come before Christmas.
Who was Steffani (1654-1728)? Born in Italy, a composer in Bavaria, ambassador in Brussels, bishop of Spiga in Asia Minor, Steffani was one of those Baroque musicians whose life effortlessly took on an international dimension. He left about a dozen operas, which are elegantly written and, to judge from the arias performed here, offer music that is charming, wistful, playful – but hardly grippingly dramatic.
Steffani’s early Baroque style is a good hunting ground for Bartoli. Its graceful, slow lyricism and nimble coloratura are second nature to her, which is just as well now that the voice has lost some of its former depth and colour, and at this Barbican concert she was wrestling with a cold. Her challenge was to sell the 15 arias as if they were more varied than they really are. One was adorned with the chirruping sounds of nocturnal birds, another with the tinkling of small bells. An aria from Alarico il Baltha asks for the singer to drop off to sleep before the music is over, which seemed to be tempting fate. In Tassilone Bartoli played a round of “anything you can do” against a solo trumpet, winking knowingly at the audience (very Schwarzkopf, that). The able Kammerorchester Basel under Diego Fasolis added occasional instrumental items, all pretty much indistinguishable.
Everything was skilfully done, but bland. When Bartoli hit Handel for her first encore, the temperature suddenly rose. Here, at last, was the red meat of the Baroque era. The Steffani had just been a lot of vegetarian hors d’oeuvres.