MUSIC / Bel canto: Nick Kimberley on Bartoli and Butterfly

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The Independent Culture
THE programme for Cecilia Bartoli's Rossini recital at Wigmore Hall gave the composer's dates as 1792-1992. If anyone can ensure that Rossini lives beyond his bicentenary, it is the 26-year-old Bartoli, who gave one more display of her dazzling bel canto technique. The trills, warbles and runs are as sharp as a razor while the chest register would stop a tank in its tracks. Bartoli loves this music, and her refined technique is her gift to it.

She is as attentive to the meaning of the text as she is scrupulous in the execution of the notes: when she sings of 'love's noose', she wraps her arms around herself, enacting the tightening of the noose. In five settings of the same text, 'Mi lagnero tacendo' (I shall suffer in silence), she easily follows the see- sawing emotions; from rapture to melancholy and back, of each successive setting - a very Rossinian jeu d'esprit.

The Wigmore Hall audience adores Bartoli, and she returns its affection. The scale of the place suits her voice, which is not large, although it may yet grow. On the concert platform she exudes high spirits, at one moment holding her arms at odd, broken-doll angles, the next coming on like a flirtatious tomboy. She all but winks at the audience to show how she is enjoying herself.

Is this vivacity sometimes a little forced, a barrier obscuring the music? Perhaps. I, for one, would love to see all that energy harnessed to a full theatrical production, but there are as yet no plans for opera performances in this country. Her Wigmore Hall programme was also light on opera, offering mainly a polyglot selection of songs, not all of which showed Rossini at his most substantial; La Regata Veneziana is one of those pieces, often described as 'delightful', which make you shudder with their wan humour. But quibbles aside, Bartoli is remarkable. Accompanied here by her regular partner, Gyorgy Fischer, she showed that Rossini is not a triumph of technique over emotion, but a happy marriage of the two.

If the technical demands made by Rossini have sometimes marginalised his music, Puccini's emotional excesses have sometimes called his relevance into question. Yet only last week the newspapers carried stories of the withdrawal of US troops from the Philippines. The GI Joes left behind a legacy of broken hearts, broken homes and a broken economy. Puccini's Madama Butterfly may be sentimental but that does not mean it has lost touch with reality, even now, nearly 90 years after its first performance.

The great virtue of the revival of Covent Garden's 1988 production, first seen at Scottish Opera, is that both the director, Nuria Espert, and the conductor, Sian Edwards, strip away what they can of sentimentality. The few moments of orchestral prelude are already tight with menace, and Espert's staging goes similarly for the dramatic heart, its intentions signalled by the dishevelled 1930s tenement block that dominates Ezio Frigerio's set. Our first sight of Butterfly immediately tells us that, while the philandering Pinkerton may be in no danger of turning Japanese, his wife-to-be is already turning American in quasi-Oriental slacks, blouse and lip-gloss. This Butterfly is no waif; she is a determined woman, quite capable of leading her new husband into the bedroom.

If that sounds out of character for a girl of 15, remember that the libretto describes her as a 'geisha', which would seem to preclude sexual innocence. Yoko Watanabe is a full- bodied Butterfly, almost overpowering Arthur Davies' decent but less well-nourished Pinkerton. Anne Mason's Suzuki is a sisterly presence as much as a handmaiden, while Malcolm Donnelly's Sharpless struggles vainly with his emotional diffidence, causing more problems than he solves. This considered staging refuses to set up Butterfly as simply Pinkerton's victim, but shows her as hemmed in, and eventually rejected, by two cultures, each eager to have its way with her.

Continues at Covent Garden (071-240 1066)