Cecilia, You’re Breaking My Heart

Cecilia Bartoli sang so scrumptiously on Sunday afternoon at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall that she made me cry.

It happened in the middle of a Bellini aria, “L’abbandono.” The Italian mezzo massaged so much pain and regret into each bittersweet line that I completely lost control of my emotions. I was speechless afterwards. I sat there frozen in my seat and couldn’t even clap. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me at a solo recital before.

The interesting thing about Bartoli is that as much as she’s a brilliant technician and a gripping actress and possesses great vocal warmth and lyricism, some of her vocalizing isn’t strictly lovely. Her trills are frequently more reminiscent of machine-gun fire than birdsong. She sounds like she’s hyperventilating when she gets going on some of the particularly fast-moving, high passages. There’s a brassiness to the way she gesticulates overtly with her eyes and mouth — she’s no sweet little choir girl that’s for sure. Yet the ugliness of these moments somehow renders her performance even more beautiful overall.

As I watched Bartoli sing that afternoon, she often pointed her right index finger to the ground while extending the fingers of her cupped left hand upwards to the sky. This physical “tic” seems, to my mind, to embody the spirit in which she approaches her art. Even as she soars into the stratosphere, she keeps part of herself firmly rooted to the ground.

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