There are singers to whom you listen, and singers in whose work you luxuriate. Cecilia Bartoli, who sang a beautiful and exhilarating recital at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Wednesday night, falls into the latter category.
Her program, a gala celebration in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Washington Performing Arts Society, was entitled "Musica Proibita" -- "Prohibited Music" -- and was made up of arias by George Frideric Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti and the lesser-known Antonio Caldara. All three were working in Rome during the first decade of the 18th century, a time when secular theatrical performance had been banned by the papacy. And so composers who might otherwise have been writing operas turned to oratorio, a long-established form of vocal music for soloists, chorus and orchestra that retold biblical tales without scenery, costumes or stage action.
There is some great music in the oratorio repertory -- Handel's "Messiah," Mendelssohn's "Elijah," and Elgar's "The Kingdom," for example -- and the genre is not yet exhausted. ("El Nino," a recent oratorio by John Adams, is considered by some his finest composition.) Moreover, as Bartoli's program made clear, attempts to bend artistic endeavor to the will of the church hardly served to dissuade creative expression.
Most of Bartoli's program (indeed, most of baroque music) came in two speeds -- fast and slow. The fast arias -- Scarlatti's "Qui resta . . . L'alta Roma?" from "San Filippo Neri," Handel's "Come nembo che fugge col vento" from "Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno" and several others -- were dazzling, rapid-fire displays of coloratura and breath control, immaculately accomplished. What sets Bartoli apart from other superdivas is the charm and intimacy she brings to these workouts, which could otherwise grow rather dull in their ceaseless pyrotechnical display. She not only astonishes but moves us, and we cheer her on.
Still, it is Bartoli in slow music that stops time. Handel's "Lascia la spina" was far and away the best-known piece on the program (in its later, operatic version, "Lascia ch'io pianga" from "Rinaldo," it was even recorded by Barbra Streisand). Here it was sung straightforwardly, but with that elevated directness that is possible only from an artist who has examined and rejected other possibilities, with a pure simplicity. The effect on her audience was phenomenal: I was reminded of the poet Frank O'Hara's description of Billie Holiday, as she "whispered a song along the keyboard to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing."
Caldara is a composer more often read about than heard. He was a figure of considerable historical importance who spent the last 20 years of his life in Vienna, helping to infuse a welcome Italian lyricism into the music of that city. I was startled by the personal stamp of his work: On the evidence of this program, he sounds like nothing so much as a lusher, more melancholy Vivaldi, particularly in Saint Eugenia's aria from "Il trionfo della innocenza," another long, languorous piece that Bartoli spun out in rapt, nuanced splendor.
Bartoli was accompanied by the Orchestra La Scintilla of Zurich Opera, a midsize, somewhat ragtag ensemble (the oboes, in particular, had a bad night) that wins over an audience with the energy and amiability of its playing. The orchestra makes do without a conductor: In keeping with tradition, the first violinist "led" the group with her shoulders, her bow arm and occasional head signals. Such is Bartoli's irrepressible gift of communication that eventually the musicians were taking most of their cues from her.