It has been a long three years since Cecilia Bartoli's previous release, Maria, brought nineteenth century coloratura Maria Malibran into the public consciousness. Decca's Sacrificium -- which reunites Bartoli with expert period band Il Giardino Armonico for the first time since 1999's The Vivaldi Album -- certainly makes clear that it was well worth the wait. In keeping with her long series of themed collections of opera arias, in this release Bartoli explores literature associated with the long lost vocal range of the castrati, male singers who were surgically altered in puberty in order to retain the high end of their voices into adulthood. The outlawing of castrati in Italy in 1870 brought this vicious practice to an end, but it also condemned two centuries' worth of operatic and sacred music to obscurity owing to the unsuitability of ordinary voices to sing in this special range; since then, a number of male countertenors have come to grips with it, with varying degrees of success, and an increasing number of females -- usually altos -- have been adopting castrato literature, as well. Bartoli -- a mezzo-soprano -- has got an amazing top end, well demonstrated in the earlier Maria release, but here she exhibits the bottom of her range to stunning effect; at one point when she dips down low in Francesco Araia's aria "Cadrò, ma qual si mira," Bartoli sounds like a man. While there are plenty of male singers who can approximate female voice, for it to go the other way around is indeed rare.
Also rare are the 12 selections on the main disc, every one of them a premiere recording of some kind. Bartoli has long established herself as an advocate for neglected or little known literature, and there is such a wealth of unused castrato literature that coming by such material probably wasn't difficult, but it also seems the album's producers were quite careful in finding examples that were representative of the theme, musically challenging for Bartoli and of generally excellent quality; even Il Giardino Armonico gets a great workout in "Nobil onda," an aria from Nicola Porpora's 1723 opera "Adelaide." It is Porpora who emerges from this material as the champion composer for castrati, which is gratifying; an increasing number of Porpora releases in the times leading up to Sacrificium makes clear that he was one of the greats among Western composers and it's nice to see a major label like Decca pay some homage to him. However, Sacrificium's compilers have not lost sight of the unique talents of the star performer; no one would accuse Porpora's "Usignolo sventurato" from the opera "Siface" as being a great aria, with its limited range and texture. However, Bartoli's sensuous delivery and bold characterization of the piece makes something very special out of it, a major highlight of the program.
Bartoli's voice is of a quality that cuts through the veils of history and delivers this obscure music with absolute perfection; Decca's Sacrificium should easily please all comers.