Cecilia Bartoli, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Bartoli slays a monstrous myth
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The Independent Culture

If anyone could rehabilitate Antonio Salieri, that most maligned and most misunderstood of Mozart's contemporaries, Cecilia Bartoli is the singer most likely succeed. There is no one better equipped to banish the miserable image of F Murray Abraham, who played the composer in Forman' s film of Shaffer's Amadeus.

She and her collaborator, Claudio Osele, have dug out dusty manuscripts from the Vienna Library, poured over faded margin notes, examined all aspects of Salieri' s long life and many cultural influences, and produced a programme of his overtures and arias that is as scrupulously researched as it is immaculately performed. The starting point, as has become Bartoli' s practice, was a CD exploring the range of Salieri's melodic style and his musical characterisation over a long career. Following the disc, comes the concert version, a selection of arias interspersed with four opera overtures played by her partners in the recording and concert project, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Appropriately, the instrumentalists opened the programme in the Bridgewater Hall' s new International Concert Series with the sparkling overture to Prima la musica, poi le parole. And after the music, came the words, in eight numbers - a mixture of recitatives and arias of various shapes, sizes and moods.

Some, like "Or ei con Ernestina", were composed for Nancy Storace (the original Susanna in Mozart' s Marriage of Figaro) and, in fact, the plight in which La Contessa finds herself in Salieri' s La scuola de' gelosi is not dissimilar to that of the Countess in Figaro. In Bartoli's exquisitely focused turn of phrase, her dynamic contrasts and thrilling mezza voce, it is impossible not to hear the same kind of passion and expression of vulnerability as Mozart captured even more movingly some years later.

Salieri clearly had the same knowledge of the female psyche as he did of the voice. Bartoli' s own astonishingly agile instrument might have been created especially for this type of virtuoso repertoire. In "Vi sono sposa e amante", a real showpiece, her vocal runs were in serious danger of overtaking the nimble fingers of her duetting partners, oboe and flute. It was as if she were the trio' s missing clarinet, on legs. In a longer chunk from his early Armida Bartoli' s expressive intensity, her innate sense of phrasing and her ability to place each note dead in tune held the audience spellbound.

For their part, the OAE musicians accompanied with enormous sensitivity - especially since Bartoli's is not the biggest voice around - alert in their dynamics, spruce in their rhythms and wholly responsive to Alison Bury's direction from the violin. They also seemed to enjoy the fun of painting the instrumental colours demanded by the ambitious bride, in a spirited aria from La Cifra, who dismisses the local yokels' bagpipes, fifes, pipes, drums and zithers on her wedding day in favour of the classier harps, oboes, clarinets, trumpets and horns that they "play in town". It would be better, though, if all the orchestral musicians could stay on stage for the whole of each half - it's not so tiresome listening to one of the world's greatest voices, after all. Bartoli's Vivaldi CD sold over half a million copies and her Gluck CD also proved surprisingly successful; unlikely though it might seem, Salieri - revealed here as a brilliantly accomplished composer rather than the murderous monster of Shaffer's myth - can surely expect to be another popular stocking-filler.

Further performance at the Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550) on 22 December. The Salieri Album is on Decca (475 100-2DH)