Diapason d'or / Arte -
Choc de Classica -
Don't hate this album because it has been beautifully marketed, for if you do you'll miss out on something extraordinary. Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli reportedly worked on it for three years, even suggesting a mystery-novel tie-in, and her label, Decca, kept the contents under wraps until the album's release, dropping hints via Internet videos. When the album appeared, it was issued in a limited-edition hardbound package including numerous essays covering aspects of the life of the composer involved, Agostino Steffani. These range from the cogent and helpful (one details Steffani's influence on Handel) to the probably woolly, shading off into the fictional treatment that's also associated with the project. The album's title reflects the fact that Steffani was a composer-diplomat, born in Italy but active for much of his life in Germany, and surrounded by various kinds of intrigue that seem to figure tangentially into some of the arias on the album. This is all intriguing, and if it spawns a feature film somewhere along the way that's all to the good, but the best news is that none of it is necessary; you can buy the album online or in its plain jewel-box version, familiarize yourself briefly with what it's about, and then be blown away. Perhaps part of Bartoli's "mission" was to elevate the music of the little-known Steffani; if so, she succeeds brilliantly, and one hopes that the release will be followed by full productions of some of Steffani's operas. Stylistically he's all over the map, with some barn-burning virtuoso arias mixed in with splendid trumpet-dominated pieces (Bartoli's interaction here with conductor Diego Fasolis and his orchestra I Barocchisti is a thing of wonder), and shorter tunes that sound a bit like Purcell. Bartoli is on top of every note, and she combines absolute technical mastery with emotional involvement to the hilt in the music's mostly flamboyantly romantic texts. This is a bravura performance that lives up to its considerable hype, and it marks a new milestone for the historical-performance movement, which finally gets a vocalist who can match the efforts of its more imaginative conductors.