Cecilia Bartoli’s album covers keep getting scarier: In this anthology of arias, duets and choruses by Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), Bartoli appears on the cover bald, wearing a priest’s collar, sternly brandishing a cross, as if her admirers are vampires. Perhaps they are. But the photo is actually riffing on composer Steffani’s extramusical life as a bishop.
Though Steffani can be short-breathed and expressively limited compared to Bach and Handel, the music is as gloriously lyrical as that of any baroque composer. The complete range of genres is here, and even if much of the music isn’t all that different from what the early-music community has heard before, there’s Bartoli’s considerable and undimmed charisma.
The highest voltage is heard in four duets with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, her technical and dramatic equal. Clearly, Bartoli’s next disc ought to be duets with the new generation of baroque specialists, most of whom were no doubt influenced by her.
David Patrick Stearns/ Philadelphia Inquirer