[Photo Credit: S. Flower/Decca 2007, via monstersandcritics]
Actually, writing about Cecilia Bartoli is, at this point, utterly redundant.
Everybody has already done it. She’s a superstar, for God’s sake. Even the lesbians have already done it – or that’s what a friend of mine alerted me to after I had given that very book as a birthday gift to my then-girlfriend’s mother. I have no idea whether the authors of the book are indeed gay, but there’s a lot of gay and merry drooling over Signora B. going on in it. While the English version is called Passion of Song, the German translation goes by “Cecilia Bartoli: A declaration of Love”. Yes, that’s us Germans: upfront and with no talent for subtlety.
Since the last Mezzo Watch was von Otter, this one had to be Bartoli. It’s the law of nature. It’s the Yin and Yang of Mezzodom: two complementary poles.
The complementary pole is definitely what Decca tried to build up throughout the nineties: Little Miss Roman Sunshine, oh the wild curls, oh the Italian je-ne-sais-quoi, oh the flirtatious charms, oh the spaghetti.
All in all: a sensual-but-unthreatening image of a nice Italian girl who can sing, cook and charm the socks of everyone, including the Pope (at least that is what I suspect. Even Ratzi wouldn’t be immune to Santa Cecilia, unless he is indeed an unfeeling vampire).
In tune with that image, early Bartoli disc covers feature serene landscapes, romantic dresses and oh-the-hair, along with a safe mainstream repertory of Rossini, Mozart and some more belcanto. On some photos, you’re afraid that the propeller-sized hair-ribbons might come to life and pull Bartoli off your disc cover like a helicopter.
Bartoli, throughout that period, kept smiling. And charming people’s socks off.
A typical example might be the “Cenerentola” production from Houston, decked out in rich chocolate tones that generally try to scream sensuality and luxury in advertising, and in costumes that coughed up dust on the cover already.
Still, Bartoli shone – with impeccable coloratura, unique color, innate musicality, and with charming people’s socks off, once more.
Early Bartoli (and her countless Rosinas) are undefeated displays of adorability, even if the productions are a little rusty at times. Her very early 1989 “Barbiere” Rosina from Schwetzingen is proof of that:
[clip with thanks to checholalo]
In Mezzo Mesopotamia (aka the land of the two rivers), there are indeed two rivers: the lyric and the coloratura one, while the latter shares its bed with the dramatic. It’s a question of either/or: Either, you’re the tall and lanky kind of mezzo with a lyric voice, who will be suspected of lesbianism in every second review and who will be backhandedly “lauded” for unconventional femininity, while critics will praise your intellectual approach, reasoning and diction.
Or, you’ll be walking down coloratura road, where interviewers will have trouble to drag their eyes up to your face while interviewing you, and where reviews will focus on the “sensuality” entry in the Thesaurus, stuffed with Mediterranean metaphors like an Appenine-sized calzone. People will talk about your “instincts” and “natural abilities”, about your boyfriends, and, if you’re really good, big ice cream companies might inquire whether you’d like to pose in the semi-nude for them, doing unspeakable things to a chocolate-covered popsicle.
Throughout the nineties, Bartoli was firmly nudged back onto Coloratura Road again and again (thankfully, she managed to get away before any ice cream company could get stupid ideas).
I remember when I got diagnosed as a coloratura mezzo (I tried very hard to be a lyric. I really tried), despite being lanky (well, back in the day) and pants-and-ties-wearing and wanting to be nothing more than Cherubino: my first image was of Bartoli – of palpable sensuality, of femininity that doesn’t go with the adjective “jeez, what a dyke” “unconventional”, of joyfulness as opposed to cranky skepticism, and I remember thinking “Dear God, I could never live up to a woman like that.”
Cecilia Bartoli, who oozed confidence and a being at ease with her femininity, was about as close to my concept of self as the Planet Mars.
Back then, it never crossed my mind whether that image was what Bartoli herself might have wanted, or whether she had to struggle with it herself – a question that became more and more apparent as Bartoli edged her way out of the cuteness corner and started to demand (and finally receive) recognition as an intelligent and exceptional artist who could damn well dig up her own repertory in the archives and who, in addition to a set of impressive curves, also had an impressive brain.
Of course, the generally perceived mutual exclusiveness of sensuality and intellect didn’t exactly make it easy for Bartoli.
I heard more than one idiot opera-goer complain bitch in the late nineties that Bartoli’s voice would be too small, she’d do repertory that wouldn’t be appropriate for her, and, again, that her voice would be small (Youtube commenters, the usual decade behind, still argue about that one).
To which I can only say, if you want a voice like a tank, take it to Villa Wahnfried. But if you want detailed coloratura, and at that level, shut up and thank your higher beings that you’re allowed to listen to it. – Or would you scream for a Rubens when you’re watching a Fragonard?
Among Bartoli’s many vocal qualities the foremost might be that her voice is utterly unique. Three notes, and you know that it is her – the darker, guttural colors, the quick changes of inflection even within one breath, the sound that seems to be bubbling up from her entire body. Other than many singers, who seem to have organ-like registers for “lyric” “light”, “low, “dramatic” and “coloratura”, there is no register called “coloratura” when it comes to Bartoli. Rather, coloratura is the point where Bartoli doesn’t end, but starts with her nuances.
For me, now that Gruberova is slowly shifting towards other repertory, Cecilia Bartoli is the ruling queen of coloratura. Period. Damrau doesn’t even compare for me, not even Dessay. Well, okay, Dessay does, but that’s a soprano thing.
So at the point where Bartoli was safely established as Coloratura Fräuleinwunder, she could have comfortably spend the rest of her career crooning Rossini, shaking her hair and making drooling lesbians write books about her.
But instead, she made the Vivaldi Album (at a point where making Vivaldi albums still wasn’t cool, edgy Baroque singer stuff, but something that only freaks would invest in).
And the world got a glimpse of Ms. Bartoli, hardworking archive researcher, who carefully chooses her repertory on her own and decides with whom she wants to record it. And who, no matter how obscure a program might seem to the mainstream at first, sells her work.
And, as of October, with “Sacrificium”, the castrato tribute album. While the cute & curly covers are proportionally lessening with each new album, the photoshopping continues – after half of her body disappeared from the cover of “Opera proibita”, Decca decided to skip her body entirely on the “Sacrificium”, instead mounting Bartoli’s head on a male marble statue (it sounds hotter than it looks like, and it could have been done better). God knows whether there will still be any Bartoli left at all on the cover of her next album.
[Photoshopping 101: the “Opera Proibita” spread. Photo Credit: DECCA, via MovieBuffRedux]
Still, this series of albums is where the “complementary poles” analogy ceases to function. The cute-Southern-passionate analogy only reaches so far, failing to describe the efficient, intelligent, no-nonsense artist who knows her stuff, does her own thing (honestly, Salieri? That bad guy from the Amadeus movie? I can only imagine the groan that went through the Decca marketing crew when Bartoli laid out her project) and manages to turn her own thing into mainstream success, be it a a radical questioning of romantic performance tradition or digging up Baroque arias nobody has sung since Vivaldi died.
While the albums are amazing, there is no denying that Bartoli is a phenomenon that also should be experienced live, either in concert (thankfully, she tours a lot) or on stage (where she appears less).
How about her “Don Giovanni” Elvira (recent interview allusions of her toying with the idea of singing Don G. himself aside) from Mezzotown (aka Zurich), where even a broken leg didn’t stop her from having the curtains go up in smoke?
This is one Elvira whom you don’t want to cross (and whom you wouldn’t leave in the first place):
[clip with thanks to Trisolde]
And then, of course, there is her “Semele”, also from Zurich. (get that DVD. Trust me, you want it.) It’s kind of NSFW for mezzo lovers because it will have you stare dreamingly out of the window for the rest of the day. But I guess we could all use some of that on this average Monday, so…
Here’s “Myself I shall adore”:
[clip with thanks to olaig100]
“No, no, I’ll take no less” – talk about making a scene: THIS is how you do it.
[clip with thanks to dolcioy]
And, finally: “Endless pleasure, endless love”. Bartoli. Bedsheet. ‘Nuff said.
[clip with thanks to AnjutaWren]
And if you’re having a really bad day, a Bartoli rendition of the Mozart classic “Deh vieni, non tardar” always guarantees a dose of inner sunshine (works great on muddy November mornings in the metro, if you don’t mind the looks people will give your smile).
And, of course, there’s still that thing with the pasta. In the very first, mid-nineties video documentary of Bartoli that Decca produced, “Bartoli cooking pasta” was one of the most frequent motives (and she does have pasta intelligence – in later “recipes form famous opera singers” cookbook (I swear it was a gift!), she makes it very clear that one should only ever use de Cecco). But apart from all those stereotypical evocations of Southern sex appeal, I’d like to point out that Bartoli also looks good in a leather jacket (see first image). Or in a suit. Or, since it is Monday, in a white shirt. Possibly even a white shirt AND a suit (thank Handel for writing “Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno”).- Apropos: if you’re in the mood for more white shirt divinity, head over to Purity’s for her wonderful portrait of Christine Schäfer.
[Photo Credit: Zurich Opera]
…instead of pasta, might I have a a very dry martini, please?
And still, next to all the readily apparent intellect and hard work, and the artist with whom you’d like to discuss embellishments and 19th century perceptions of tempi rather than pasta recipes, there is that charm thing.
I was determined not to fall for it. Really, I was. I went to my first Bartoli concert thinking that the fuss about her, apart from her singing, was just a media induced hype.
Boy, was I ever wrong. I don’t remember the program or the composer of that night, but I remember the red ears of the bass player she smiled at, and everybody in the audience seemed to feel the same. She was, in every sense, breathtaking.
I consider myself a cranky skeptic, but I will readily sign the statement that it is impossible to go to a Cecilia Bartoli concert and not fall a little bit in love with her in the process.
Since I cannot prove it with a live experience, let me present you with the next best thing:
German newspaper “Süddeutsche” used to do an “interview without words” series in their weekly magazine, having the interviewed people answer in mimics and facial expressions. The interview with Bartoli must have been 2007; I dug it up again and scanned it in for you – it’s so very Bartoli, and, really, words are overrated.
The questions are translated below (actually, the page was a spread, so in the two single images, the questions are a little jingled – click to enlarge)
first image (left to right and top to bottom):
Ms. Bartoli, your first career was as a flamenco dancer. Could you still do some moves…?
And if you wouldn’t meet the Callas, but the great Enrico Caruso?
Is a successful career more readily available to singers who are attractive?
second image (left to right and top to bottom):
In the media you’re often referred to as “the Callas of Baroque”. Do you like that title?
What would your expression be if you met Maria Callas in heaven one day?
Could you imitate the face of a typical Italian opera-goer for us?
Have you ever downloaded an aria from the internet?
To name a favorite among all of Bartoli’s albums… impossible. I love the Vivaldi album. I love, love, love Opera proibita. Next up, I will most likely fall head over heels for Sacrificium.
But actually, deep, deep down, my heart belongs to her Arie Antiche. The album is from the Cuteness and Pasta Epoque (Decca stylists: the hair, what were you thinking?), but her handling of those miniatures that actually are for singers what Czerny Études are for piano students all over the world: that is artistry, detail work and dedication.
(on a side note, I internalized Bartoli’s version of these “arie” so much that when I came to Arie Antiche in my singing lessons, my teacher kept protesting “That’s Bartoli, not you!” and finally switched me to other études.)
[clip with thanks to elderarce]
And if you now think you couldn’t possibly be charmed more by Cecilia Bartoli, watch the following clip. It’s from a German talkshow, where Bartoli was interviewed side-by side with the late Peter Ustinov, who pretends to be the stubborn Fiat 500 that Bartoli, in turn, tries to steer through Roman traffic.
[clip with many thanks to aiyanglee]