One of my most gratifying - though least surprising perhaps- birthday presents was Cecilia's new CD, Opera Proibita. Which, though I've already read articles about it misled by the title, actually isn't a CD of forbidden opera, but rather of the vocal music which was permitted in Rome when opera wasn't: arias from wonderfully dramatic oratorios which, it seems, blurred the opera/oratorio sacred/profane boundaries as much as their composers could possibly get away with. Handel is here, pre-London, alongside Scarlatti and Caldara. Much of the music from the latter two is recorded here for the very first time, which is one of the things Cecilia and her trusty sidekick Claudio Osele specialise in these days.
It's an utterly gorgeous programme. Like the Salieri Album, this one opens with a bang, Cecilia in full acrobatic coloratura swing with "All'arme sì accesi guerrieri" from Scarlatti's Cantata per la Notte del SS.mo Natale (these things all have terribly long titles). She's fierce here - and fiercely accurate too, matching the strings note for virtuosic note in some hair-raising passages. There are other similarly impressive pieces too, incredible showpieces to be sure - but Cecilia's talent, or one of them, is endowing everything with heart and with meaning. It's virtuosity, yes, but she makes sure it's never empty virtuosity. Nevertheless, it's the slower and more heartfelt arias which, in my opinion, really see her shine. "Vanne pentita a piangere" from Caldara's Il Trionfo dell'Innocenza is shimmeringly gorgeous; Ismael's aria from Scarlatti's Sedecia, Re di Gerusalemme is almost too much to bear - surely nobody sings the words 'Caldo sangue' as chillingly as Cecilia (I recommend saying those last four words aloud, it sounds wonderful!). One of the disc's loveliest moments comes from another Scarlatti piece, 'Che dolce simpatia', a sort of folksong-ish pastoral miniature which is sung with affecting (and never cloying) sweetness. It's a beautiful, beautiful album - possibly the best of Cecilia's Neglected Baroque Repertoire ventures so far. Les Musiciens du Louvre under Marc Minkowski play exquisitely too, which helps. They're a perfect match for Cecilia who, while naturally shining bright, sounds very much like one of the band. And all of this comes after just one hearing. The more I listen to it, the more, I know, I shall love it.
But - and I'll bet you didn't hear that coming - having said all this, I do hope fervently that Cecilia's next album will be totally unlike this. It's gorgeous, and I've made it clear above that I love it. But I also know that she can do other things, and it's about time we heard them. The fact is that of all Cecilia's solo albums (and I own every single one) my own personal favourite is perhaps the least 'Cecilia' of them all: Chant d'Amour. French art song of the nineteenth and - gasp - (early)twentieth centuries. Almost nothing on the CD is the sort of repertoire we expect from Cecilia - neither was it when she recorded it - but she makes it all absolutely her own. The fact is that, much as I adore her singing Mozart, Rossini, Vivaldi, Salieri - I might well trade all of that in for any one of the exquisite Ravel songs on that CD. Now don't misunderstand me. I wouldn't wish away any of Cecilia's baroque discs. But I think we're ready - and she's ready - to do something different next time. It's not a command I'm issuing forth - if the next CD is Neglected Baroque Repertoire I will buy it and love it and quite possibly eat my words - but just a wish and a hope for something which I think would be very special indeed. After all, we know how good she is at discovering music - music which works for her - and singing it to perfection; just imagine what she could do if she widened her scope next time.