Sacrificium: The Art of the Castrati (A Cinematographic Vision by Olivier Simonnet) Review

Ah! Now, as I return to posting regularly, I thought I would do something I have long intended to do (as mentioned in an earlier post). I will be reviewing the DVD based on Cecilia Bartoli's popular album Sacrificium. I would have reviewed the album, but it came out long before my blog began. This DVD is both more recent, and, I think, more interesting.

The idea to make a concert DVD not just in any concert venue (though many of the classical music and opera venues are beautiful in their own right) but in the breathtaking Royal Palace of Caserta was brilliant. The location is simply stunning. Whether the place Bartoli sings is the exquisite Baroque theatre within the palace, in its rooms (near the windows), within the grand foyer, on its stairs, or among the grand cedars of the garden, each location lends itself to the particular aria being performed and provides a stunning backdrop.

The setting is not the only part of the DVD that is well crafted visually. The outfits are period accurate and gorgeous themselves, whether being intended to appear masculine as in the beginning of the DVD or feminine in the second half (with a dramatic shift between). The clothes have a fair model in Bartoli, who, still in her 40s, maintains becoming looks without being garish or overdone. Indeed, Bartoli is shockingly capable of playing both the strong, passionate male roles with her hair tied back and high, often furious energy as well as calm female roles reflecting deep emotion and heartfelt sentiment while wearing more feminine garb.

Of course, the part I imagine really interests someone thinking about viewing this DVD is the singing quality, style, and overall performance. This is, all in all excellent in its portrayal and incredible in its technical mastery. Bartoli sings with immaculate breath control and effervescent, irrepressible coloratura perfectly mastered for pitch and vocal tone. The most immediately apparent pieces of technical difficulty are the likes of "Nobil onda," "Son qual nave," "In braccio a mille furie," and the inimitable, "Cadrò, ma qual si mira." The incredible alacrity of the coloratura, the difficulty and length of the runs, and the precision the melodies require show off Bartoli's title The Queen of Agility. "Cadrò, ma qual si mira," indeed, does seem to truly live up to what Bartoli claims: that it is the most difficult Baroque aria ever written. I must say my personal favorite on the DVD (and the album) is "In braccio a mille furie," with its raging fury and coloratura fireworks. Bartoli I also think does a good job in her performance of portraying the character's emotions.

The fast pieces aren't the only thing worth hearing on the DVD, however. As Bartoli herself notes, though initially the fast tempo pieces appear to be the more difficult and the more impressive of the tunes the piece presents, in reality, the slower pieces take just as much skill, if not more in some ways. Some of the long lines in "Parto ti lascio, o cara," rising to high notes and trills at the very end of a breath require immaculate breath control and mastery of sustained tone. Though a quick piece in general, "Nobil onda" also possesses some lines of great difficulty for similar reasons. The piece that Bartoli sings imploringly while longingly gazing out the window, "Usignolo, sventurato" also portrays Bartoli's ability with Baroque pieces of a slower nature. The only failing in this performance is that Bartoli is less capable in her acting of playing the ingenue maiden than some other characters represented in the repertoire she presents. Of course the renowned tune, "Ombra mai fu" of Handel's Serse, which finishes off the album among the tall cedars on the palace grounds, is as excellent a rendition as many and well acted.

The DVD, though excellent, is not perfect. Some credence must first be given to the fact that a listener hears only an approximation of what these pieces were intended to sound like when sung by castrati. That being said, Bartoli probably gives the best approximation of anyone currently alive.  Visually and production wise the DVD sometimes feels a bit disjunctive, the transitions, though neat, use music that doesn't necessarily tie the preceding and succeeding pieces together particularly well. Also, though I understand that certain places (particularly the theatre) of the palace were ideal for singing, I would have loved to have seen more of the spectacular Palace of Caserta as is showcased in the special features of the DVD. Similarly, I felt like the exquisite costumes Bartoli wore could have been varied a bit more. There were essentially only two costumes, and if the level of intricacy had simply been repeated in more iterations, the effect would have been yet more spectacular.

Bartoli herself does an incredible job of performing the music of the castrati. That sad, like all vocalists, she is not perfect. Sometimes her singing seems to represent immense body tension. It is amazing, and a credit to her technique, that she is able to sing like this. Indeed, it often aids in the interpretation of many of these charged arias. Nonetheless, one sometimes wonders if she could gain more freedom and power (in terms of size, as agility is clearly not an issue whereas volume has been a criticism against Bartoli) by releasing some of this tension. Also, sometimes the tension in the body, rather than adding to the physical interpretation, distracts from the singing or makes it hard to watch and feel the emotions because too much is going on in the body. The voice, though quite beautiful throughout, does have its moments of harshness or shrillness. Some of these are purposeful in an attempt to paint the text of the aria. Some are not and often stem from the difficulty and alacrity of the arias. Though not perfect in this regard, Bartoli manages passages few singers can actually sing with overall grace and beauty.

To anyone who has any interest in the music on Sacrificium, Baroque in nature and intended for castrati, I absolutely recommend picking up this DVD. I have watched it several times and find all of the music incredibly engaging, particularly when paired with the stunning visuals of Caserta. If you're not sure, check out a few YouTube links (listed below). Or try buying and listening to Sacrificium in its CD form first. The links for both the CD and the DVD are below as well.


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