Worried about the health of the classical recording industry? Still wanting the physical pleasure of a CD (or book) in the hand rather than submitting to an online cultural life? If so, Cecilia Bartoli's new album may give you cause for hope.

The Italian mezzo's Mission is housed in a luxurious 173-page hardcover book, drawing on an obviously plush budget to assert that Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) was the greatest Italian composer between Monteverdi and Vivaldi.

Bartoli has taken to the project like a woman possessed.

The book features an extravagant photo-shoot in which Bartoli, with shaven head, plays a composer who also happened to be a priest, a diplomat and, if we believe the singer's own theories, possibly a castrato.


Mission is part of a bigger marketing exercise that includes Olivier Simonnet's "cinematographic vision" available on DVD and Mission: The Game coming soon on iPad. Donna Leon, whose latest novel, The Jewels of Paradise, uses Bartoli's discoveries to fuel its narrative, claims that her friend's musical excavations are in the same league as Howard Carter discovering the tomb of King Tut.

Clearly, there is ample diversion to be had before sampling even a semiquaver of Steffani.

The CD offers a generous 25 tastings and, when the 2010 Covent Garden production of Steffani's Niobe, Queen of Thebes received lukewarm critical praise, perhaps an anthology is the best approach.

Bartoli is an operatic tigress and relishes the primary emotions of rage, fear, lust and anguish, launching the disc with a flaring battle cry, against the trumpeting splendour of I Barocchisti under Diego Fasolis.

Within a track, soothing lutes introduce contemplation, with strings and woodwind entwining around the mezzo's expressive bel canto. The disc offers thrilling opportunities for operatic anger, a genre in which Bartoli excels.

She is particularly terrifying in a punchy aria from The Battle between Hercules and Acheloo, singing of flying vipers and horrible monsters, against what sounds like a major volcanic eruption from I Barocchisti's percussion section.

Not all is thunder and fury, however; fans of Philippe Jaroussky will enjoy the French countertenor in four duets that offer some gentler joys.

Verdict: Celebrated mezzo and operatic sleuth Cecilia Bartoli thrills with her latest discovery.
Stars: 5/5