Music: Ascent of a woman (or why Bartoli's the new Pav)

Cecilia Bartoli Royal Albert Hall, London Les Boreades Royal Albert Hall, London Academies Musicales Saintes, France

The opportunity to wallow in millennial retrospection has not passed the Proms by in their 105th season. The main theme this year is "The Ascent of Man": a survey of how humankind has written itself, its struggles, failures and achievements in music. That makes either an easy peg on which you can hang almost anything, or an awesome challenge that could scarcely be met if the Proms ran for 80 weeks instead of eight.

The opening weekend had something of both the awesome and the easy. It began with Michael Tippett's oratorio The Mask of Time, a vast, arcane and crazily off-target attempt to chart the history of everything that ever was in 90 minutes. Then last Sunday it tailed off into something called "A Thousand Years of Music in a Day", which was more a marketing gimmick than a serious attempt to precis what has happened in those thousand years. But in between came a concert that illustrated the ascent of woman: the woman being Cecilia Bartoli who is said, these days, to be the hottest box-office attraction in classical music after Pavarotti.

The temperature of her box-office in Britain is no doubt stoked by the fact that she rarely sings here. We've never seen her in a full, staged opera, and we won't, until she makes her Covent Garden debut in 2001. So her Proms appearance - also en debut - was an event; and although the voice is physically small for a space like the Albert Hall, it was big last Saturday. It had brilliance, life and excitement in a sequence of Haydn and Mozart arias that won't have disappointed anyone who heard them, especially radio listeners, who got the amplifying advantage of the BBC's microphones. There are few singers around today who combine such perfection of technique with such a powerful, sometimes provocative personality.

The provocative element in this programme was Mozart's "Un moto di gioia", one of the rare "substitute" arias that caused so much fuss when she sang them - instead of the standard ones we know and love - in a recent Figaro at the Met. Jonathan Miller, who directed the production, had told her no. But when his back was turned she changed everything, causing a major transatlantic row. That she should come to Miller's home town and bring "Un moto di gioia" with her was, I can only assume, making a point. But not necessarily a musicological one.

For serious musicology, you had to be at the Albert Hall on Monday to witness what was surely - Bartoli notwithstanding - the event of the Proms' opening week: a semi-staging of Rameau's Les Boreades. Bought in as a package from the Salzburg Festival, it came complete with Salzburg's stylish, light-voiced (largely American) cast, and the Age of Enlightenment Orchestra under Simon Rattle - on whom the eyes and ears of the world are currently fixed until he comes into his Berlin inheritance.

Les Boreades is festival material. You wouldn't want to hear it often, and to do it properly demands some spectacle - which by all accounts it got in Salzburg with a vengeance. It's a decorative piece, an exquisite French baroque contrivance of the kind in which the narrative periodically stops dead and zephyrs, muses, nymphs and shepherds troop on for a courtly dance. The characters are thin, no more than playthings of the gods who, for some reason, take a keen interest in thwarting the matrimonial intentions of mere mortals. That's the plot. Though there's beauty in the writing, there are none of those moments of blinding emotional revelation or heart-stopping pathos that abound in Purcell and Handel. Rameau travels light - which is why this show gets away with camping the piece up. It's meant to be tragedie.

That said, the campery is elegant. The singing is sublime, with voices like Barbara Bonney and Heidi Grant Murphy who brush the text with the merest suggestion of tone in the true manner of a French diseuse. And there is substance in the orchestral music, which came with a wind section of Wagnerian dimensions - four flutes, four oboes, four bassoons - and a capacity for weather effects that would impress Michael Fish. I should explain that the god who causes all the trouble is the North Wind, Boreas, who seems to have a special deal going with the orchestra and makes his presence felt throughout - even though he has nothing much to sing.

Simon Rattle's deal with the OAE is pretty good as well and proves, in all this posturing baroque, that he really can turn his hand to anything. He didn't play his own recitatives at the keyboard: someone else did that, with some small loss of line as a result. But otherwise, he shaped and nurtured the music wonderfully. A touch more nurturing of the OAE's wayward percussion and it would have been just perfect.

The current master of the nurturing approach to baroque repertory is Philippe Herreweghe whose French festival, the Academies Musicales de Saintes has been running this week with the sort of benchmark performances that leave a critic struggling for superlatives. It's taken a long time for Herreweghe to break into British consciousness. Unflamboyant, earnest, mousy (and with an unpronounceable name), he always seemed more of a musician's musician than our own, more glamorous baroque stars: Hogwood, Gardiner, et al.

In mainland Europe, however, it's been a different story. For 25 years he has been quietly but surely building an empire of interconnected choirs and orchestras like Collegium Vocale in Ghent and the Chapelle Royale and Orchestre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. And at Saintes - a small, baked- white town of Romanesque churches that feels further south than it actually is - they all come together, in what is now one of the leading baroque- based festivals of Europe.

I say "baroque-based" with caution, because Herreweghe's repertory these days extends well into the 20th century. On my flying visit to Saintes, I heard him conduct Kurt Weill; I heard the Ensemble Modern play George Benjamin; and I heard a fabulously eloquent performance by the young Jean-Guilhen Queyras of Britten's Third Cello Suite - all in the massive 11th-century Abbaye aux Dames. It isn't necessarily an ideal space for such things, especially not for Weill's Threepenny Opera music (which in French, I notice, becomes L'Opera de quatusous: 33 per cent inflation).

But at the very heart of the Saintes programmes is Bach. And Herreweghe's Bach is special. Diametrically opposed to the dynamic, driven rhythmic brilliance of John Eliot Gardiner, he sustains the momentum of this music by other means: with sculptural definition, careful colour-shading, and a gentle, cushioned buoyancy that warms but doesn't blur the clarity of sound. He learnt this way of playing Bach from Gustav Leonhardt. It's an ancestry that shows, and it's a joy to hear. Especially on Herreweghe's home patch.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015