Mezzo rivals Bartoli, Larmore compared


Cecilia Bartoli, "A Portrait," arias and art songs by Mozart, Rossini, Parisotti, Caccini and others (London 448 300-2); Jennifer Larmore, "Where Shall I Fly," arias by Handel and Mozart, performed with the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducting (Teldec 4509-96800-2)

It used to be the case that the great rivalries in divadom were between sopranos, but these two mezzos seem to be changing that. The beauty of their voices, their dramatic abilities and their capacity for breathtaking coloratura have made Bartoli and Larmore perhaps the most exciting female singers in the world, and we can expect them to compete for roles for decades to come.

No one now needs an introduction to the Italian-born Bartoli. She became a star in the late 1980s -- when she was still in her early 20s -- just as Marilyn Horne was withdrawing from the opera stage. Larmore, an American from Atlanta only a few years older than Bartoli, made her career initially on European stages. But by the time she debuted at the Met last season at the age of 36, word of mouth had created expectations about her that she triumphantly fulfilled.

Bartoli's splendid "new" recording is actually a compilation from nine previous albums: It includes her intimate rendering of Mozart's concert aria, "Ch'io mi scordi di te?" (K. 505), in which she's partnered by pianist Andras Schiff and Gyorgy Fischer conducting the Vienna Chamber orchestra; her triumphant conquest of Cenerentola's rondo; and some Schubert songs in which she's partnered by the redoubtable Schiff. "Where Shall I Fly" is Larmore's first solo album, and it contains some Mozart items that Bartoli also sings as well as arias from Handel operas that are not part of Bartoli's repertory.

Great rivalries are generated by differences as well as similarities, however, and the presence of Handel in one singer's repertory and its absence in the other's points to a major difference between Larmore and Bartoli. Larmore's is the bigger voice and is better-suited for music -- such as the roles that Handel wrote for the castrati of his day -- that demands a deep timbre and an almost velvety texture. The American is the natural heir to the heroic mezzo repertory that belonged to Horne.

This is not to say, however, that Bartoli will be confined to the soubrette roles -- such as Despina in Mozart's "Cosi" -- that have made her famous. When she tackles Fiordiligi's "Come scoglio!" in "Cosi" -- an aria usually taken by sopranos -- she generates perhaps even more force and emotional power than Larmore does in Dorabella's "Smanie implacabili" in the same opera.

Comparison of the two singers in another Mozart aria -- Cheribino's "Voi che sapete" from "Nozze" -- suggests another telling difference. Bartoli's performance is slightly more artful and controlled, Larmore's more open-hearted and dramatic. One suspects that, because of her voice's size and her dramatic instincts, Larmore will cut a slightly larger swath in purely operatic roles and that Bartoli, like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Elly Ameling before her, will go beyond being a diva to become one our most valued purveyors of art songs.

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