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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions