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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

HOMAGE A LA MALIBRAN (article first published : 2007-12-4)

The most important factor in building a star career in the classical music environment is landing a high-profile record contract with an industry giant such as Deutsche Grammophon, Decca or EMI. This, many a cynic would say, takes precedence over engagements in big league houses on the international circuit. Perhaps the most spectacular instance of this phenomenon in our time is the career of Italian mezzo soprano superstar, Cecilia Bartoli.

Adored by millions, hard-nosed detractors notwithstanding, La Bartoli has just released her 20th album for Decca. Here, as with all her previous records, she has collaborated with veteran record producer Christopher Raeburn on what is his 50th recording project for the company. Raeburn came out of retirement to produce the sensationally gifted young mezzo when she burst upon the recording scene 20 years ago, then scarcely out of her teens. He has remained devoted to the cause ever since.

In the new album, simply entitled Maria, Bartoli and her team offer us superbly researched and endlessly fascinating retrospectives of the life and musical times of the 19th century operatic icon, Maria Malibran. The journey yields up no fewer than eight world premiere recordings, along with favourites from Belliniís La Sonnambula, Norma and I Puritani. Typically, the singer typically puts her own distinctive stamp on the latter items.

It is difficult to single out a highlight among the rarities on the programme. If pressed, a stand-out would be the magnificently rendered Infelice, a long-overdue resurrection of Mendelssohnís Scena ed Aria set to a text by the 18th century poet Metastasio. This boasts an obbligato contribution by Maxim Vengarov, no less, for the pieceís virtuoso violin part. One might also cite the delectable Rataplan, a composition by Madame Malibran herself, followed by a Pacini extract, composed for insertion into Rossiniís early masterpiece, Tancredi. I confess to having reprised these tracks repeatedly on first listening to the record.

Throughout the audio disc, the singerís performances take on what becomes a virtually visual dimension, such is the charismatic force at work. This over-rides the breathtaking technical accomplishment as she flies through the notes at lightning speed, or caresses phrases that float up into the ethos like gossamer.

Geographically, the lady crosses one national border after another, yodelling away merrily in Hummelís irresistible Air ŗ la Tirolienne Avec Variations, displaying authentic flamenco temperament in a quasi Spanish item, and so on.

One has to go back to the glory days of Victoria de los Angeles to find a comparable example of the indefinable quality Bartoli brings to her singing, an emotional simplicity that reaches the heart, enslaving listeners for life. The Washington Postís recent headline, "A celebrity of incomparable stature, Bartoli reigns supreme", is true. No other female singer in our time has her pulling power. This is exercised with immense integrity. Where others resort to cross-over compromises to win friends and influence people to Ďjoin the causeí, Bartoli sticks to her guns. She opens up new horizons for us to explore with her on her own turf.

The new disc follows a string of similarly adventurous albums, each the result of in-depth musicological research. These have been devoted to music by Gluck, Vivaldi and the much- maligned Salieri of Amadeus notoriety. Here, however, Decca have pulled out the stops with deluxe packaging as never before, even in the heyday of Joan Sutherland. Besides being issued in a standard CD jewel case, Maria is also available in a limited edition hard-back, 200-page book format with enlightening notes, high-gloss art work, and a wealth of images documenting the Trans Atlantic career of La Malibran, the Callas of her day, some 180 years ago. These are interfaced with art photography focusing on La Bartoli herself, the Diva of our day.

Maria would make a Christmas gift to die for, if you have an opera fan among your nearest and dearest, so step into cyberspace and pay a visit to the wonderful world of Amazon, while stocks last. The album exhibits Bartoli singing in four languages: Italian, Spanish, French and English. She is joined by the period practice Orchestra La Scintilla, led by Hungarian conductor Adam Fischer.

On the home front, a reminder that if you live in Durban you miss Clare Mortimer in Master Class - in the Playhouse Loft theatre, playing until 9 December - at your peril. If this were a movie, the lady would be up for an Academy Award, never mind the Durban Theatre Award she won for the role on Monday.

And your support would be most sincerely appreciated, too, when UKZNís OSCA presents its forthcoming Fund-raising and farewell Concert Bulelani and Friends at Howard College Theatre this Saturday (December 1) at 19h30. One of our most gifted young singers, Bulelani Madikizela, an outstanding baritone from the Opera Studio and Choral Academy at UKZN, has been accepted and awarded a tuition scholarship by the prestigious Cardiff International Academy for Voice in 2008. Seven thousand pounds have been raised in the UK and in Durban towards his accommodation and living expenses.

He still needs money to cover his living costs, however. He would be very grateful to receive any assistance from music lovers in South Africa. Donations may be deposited in his account: Bulelani Madikizela, First National Bank, Branch number 220226, account number 62077931585 or contact Colleen Philp on 031 767 1634 or 083 319 3385. Bulelaniís cell number is 083 974 9780. Tickets cost R30 and parking is freely available. Ė William Charlton-Perkins




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