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.

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