Swagger like them

L’elisir d’amore
Royal Opera House, London WC2
Cecilia Bartoli
Barbican, London EC2

Italy has always been the heartland of classical music, home to the composers who dominate our opera houses and the performers who draw us to the concert hall. Yet the relationship between the nation and its music goes beyond history and tradition. Italy is, after all, home of the diva and the maestro and its music has always been as much about attitude as authenticity. This month, the soprano Cecilia Bartoli from Rome and the tenor Roberto Alagna, born to Sicilian parents, were in London, singing music by Italian composers. The obscure arias of the allbut- forgotten Agostino Steffani and the bel canto frolics of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore are a world apart but whether in tragedy or comedy there’s a showmanship at the core of this repertoire and its performers that is Italy’s alone.

There are few artists who are unarguable, who rise above the clatter and yap of industry debate. Bartoli is one of them. Her range (which, unusually, allows her to take both mezzo and soprano roles) is equalled only by the sheer force of her stage presence. On the cover of her latest CD, she shocks, all blazing eyes and bald skullcap, clutching a crucifix. As national treasures go, Bartoli may not yet be up there with the Pope but she inspires no less devotion from her listeners – something this latest persona makes a knowing nod to.

The provocative image is nothing compared to the disc’s contents and the programme for her London concert, devoted to the music of Steffani, a little-known composer of the early baroque. A production of Steffani’s Niobe, regina di Tebe at the Royal Opera House in 2010 took everyone by surprise with its musical richness but momentum was soon lost and the composer once again forgotten. Bartoli’s onewoman mission seems likely to change all that. Not for Bartoli the staid walk on to stage to decorous applause. As the virtuosic Kammer - orchester Basel under Diego Fasolis segued from overture into aria, Bartoli erupted into the Barbican Hall, dancing her way on to the platform to the accompaniment of her tambourine, wielded like a weapon. It helps that Bartoli has chosen her material well. Some 30 years older than Handel, Steffani’s orchestration is every bit as sophisticated as the latter and shares the same gift for melody. The ear-bending coloratura of Vivaldi is here (as arias from La superbia d’Ales - sandro and Alarico il Baltha demonstrate) but added to it is a gift for musical characterisation. Percussion took unusual prominence, swath - ing “Notte amica al cieco dio” in a mist of tinkling bells and adding martial swagger to “Suoni, tuoni, il suolo scuota”, in which the irrepressible Bartoli even enlisted the orchestra in her vocal attack.

As she was suffering from bronchitis, Bartoli’s delivery may have been quieter than normal but it suffered no loss of colour or energy. Dodging between the long lines of contemplative arias with their endless legatos and the muscular thrust of coloratura, she deployed every technical missile in her arsenal, wringing us one moment with the impossible pianissimos of “Sposa, mancar mi sento” before cuffing us back into the moment with chesty force. In obbligato contributions from the orchestra Bartoli was in playful dialogue with trumpet and oboe – always the listening, reacting chamber musician but never less than a diva.

As Alagna tumbles and dives around the Royal Opera House stage in Laurent Pelly’s production of L’elisir d’amore, it’s hard to believe that it’s a role he has been playing for 20 years. First seen as the hapless lover Nemorino at the Vienna State Opera in 1992, Alagna’s voice has since grown considerably heavier, demanding increasing effort and control from the well as the guaranteed money notes) it has gained some expressive colours, which were put to good use in the showpiece “Una furtiva lagrima”. The real joy is in the swagger of it all – the vocal tricks and adornments in which he parcels his performance. You never forget this is Alagna-singing-Nemorino but the singer’s charisma and vocal authority make it work musically, even if dramatically things suffer.

This second revival of Pelly’s production is feeling a little weary, a little less than loved. The dusty setting of rural 1960s Italy tries a little too hard to be charming in Chantal Thomas’s designs and the reliance on bicycles, dogs and haystacks to create an atmosphere feels like a compensation for a lack of foreground action.

Speeds from Bruno Campanella’s pit are sufficiently slow as to suggest that a dose of Dr Dulcamara’s medicine for la constipazione (advertised on the wonderfully characterful safety curtain) might be in order but thanks to good work from Aleksandra Kurzak’s Adina (winsome, if not as vocally adept as in previous appearances) and Ambrogio Maestri’s Dulcamara, the farce plays out pleasantly enough.

Bartoli, Donizetti, Steffani and Alagna have brought a dose of Italian sunshine and some serious swagger to the London stage. Their celebration of skill is unabashed and in their hands opera is the entertainment it was always intended to be – traditional and respectful but also vital and incorrigibly playful.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?