Classical Music Live Review: Cecilia Bartoli Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Cecilia Bartoli is a thinking singer, careful about what she sings. She doesn't, for example, feel comfortable singing German, so whole areas of repertoire in which she would undoubtedly excel remain untouched. Some suggest that's for fear of exposing what is, by modern standards, a rather small voice, but last Tuesday she had no problem dominating Manchester's Bridgewater Hall, a large and, so it's alleged, acoustically problematic venue. To be sure, it's not a voice to rattle the rafters, so that the first aural impression suggested that she was further away than she actually was. Yet every syllable and every precisely delineated note emerged perfectly audibly and, in any case, perhaps the fact that Bartoli doesn't batter your eardrums demands a closer, more rapt attention, attention that she amply repays.

The first half of her programme found her accompanied by a string quartet (I Delfici) augmented by the harpsichord of her regular accompanist, Gyorgy Fischer. This unconventional line-up not only confirmed her thoughtful approach to everything she does, it also suited her very well as she showed off all her trills, roulades and embellishments in three pieces by Vivaldi. The first, In furore iustissimae irae, she sang from score, but there were no signs of hesitation as she tripped delicately through the composer's fearsome coloratura. At its climax, she burst forth in an endlessly elaborated "Alleluia", uncontrollable ecstasy mimicked with absolute control.

She sings Vivaldi with more colouration than we're used to from those few authenticists who tackle this repertoire, and it's immensely involving. Then, in the cantata Cessate, omai cessato, as she drained the voice of colour for the dread word "vendetta", the effect was all the more piercing. In an aria from the opera La Griselda, the runs became more fantasticated still, and the rise and fall of sequins across her abdomen testified to her exertions. Yet Bartoli never sounds to be straining. The mad elaborations Vivaldi demands, and the even crazier coloratura she fired off in Rossini, come naturally to her. Where other singers labour, Bartoli appears to exert no more effort than when she is talking. It's an illusion, of course, but her technique enables her to find drama where too often we hear only display.

And then there is the ease with which she embraces her listeners. At Bridgewater Hall, part of the audience was behind her, and there was something graciously regal about the way that, at every exit, she extended a hand to her adoring subjects, first to the left, then to the right. Then, in an encore of Paisiello's Nel cor piu, she promenaded around the piano, singing to each section of the audience in turn: a simple gesture of natural generosity; and, be it noted, the voice reached the circle even when she had her back to it. With the exception of the couple who told me that Teresa Berganza did it all so much better, the audience loved every minute. The posters around the city proclaim Eric Cantona the King of Manchester. Bartoli may now be the Queen.