Music: Cecilia Bartoli, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
They'd been queueing for precious returns since 7.30 on Friday morning. You could have sold the Wigmore Hall 10 times over. But then Cecilia Bartoli doesn't exactly spread herself around. We're still waiting for those elusive opera dates. Good on her, I say. Save the voice, let the record company do the walking. She seems to know what's good for her: she knows what she can do, and where to do it.

A Wigmore Hall date meets all the requirements. A discerning audience for her small, highly selective repertoire, and the perfect size, encouraging for her voice, accommodating of her personality. Bartoli likes to work up close and personal. Her sunny, lovable countenance needs a homely ambience. Minimal distance between her and us. It's not a big voice, and the detail, the fine-tuning of her work, is of a most intimate nature. She phrases with such evident delight in discovery, conveying that sense of wonderment which is suggestive of something actually being created in the moment of performance. Her artistry is entirely her own.

In songs by Beethoven and Schubert, one or two of her expressive mannerisms seemed a little contrived, almost as if she were burdened by the responsibility, the "seriousness" of the material. The breathy confidence, the sudden dying phrase, the draining of vibrato and whitening of the sound to highlight emotion - as dramatic "effects" (each used a little too freely) they began to detract from the inner life of the songs in question.

The operatic context of Haydn's gran scena "Arianna a Naxos" was a different matter. Bartoli was very much "on stage" (the Wigmore Hall approximating to the kind of singer-friendly Baroque house where, in another life, she might have been a different kind of star); and relishing the opportunity to push voice and technique in the service of a diva scorned. And it was a push. You don't want to be hearing too much of this from her - for her sake. But she can use the words of her native tongue like firecrackers: "Barbaro ed infidel" was scornful as hell, the final pay-off hurled straight from the chest like a gauntlet.

She was relaxed now, enjoying herself. And it showed in the way that she snuggled down to the cosier second half of the recital. Two songs by Pauline Viardot Garcia and one by Delibes were just what a grey, wet evening ordered, the natural curves and caresses of her singing eliciting much charm, tiny ornaments brushed off the end of long, tapered cadences like knowing afterthoughts. Really quiet phrases spoke now as they hadn't always done earlier, with a full voice, the engaging (and distinctive) flutter of vibrato keeping the sound "in the air". Bellini's "Ma rendi pur contento", a song about the selflessness of love, was especially beautiful. It seemed to sit right in the palm of her hand.

But then on came the Rossini - three settings of "Mi lagnero tacende", three different characters, three different "takes", and much hilarity - and "La regata Veneziana" ("The Venice regatta") in which every nod, wink, chuckle, sigh, hot flush of Anzoleta's enthusiasm for her heroic gondolier (no prizes for guessing what sport this spirited young lady had in mind) was duly registered. The way Bartoli uses the coloratura in her characterisation - to laugh, to tease, to flirt - should be a lesson to all young singers. And just in case anyone still thought she'd been short-changing us, she threw in "Agitata da due venti" from Vivaldi's Griselda as an encore, bunjee jumping registers and firing off the pyrotechnics in crackling staccatissimo. Bliss.

EDWARD SECKERSON

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