I must confess to a certain ambivalence about Cecilia Bartoli. I have disliked her in opera at the Met—her spiteful, vixenish Angelina (just how does one get from there to "la bontà in trionfo?"); her cartoon-like, hyperkinetic Susanna, paired with the vulgar Figaro of Bryn Terfel.
That said, Bartoli's recitals have always knocked me for a loop. I recall in particular her 2002 program at Newark's NJPAC, during which she repeatedly made time stand still with her Caccini, Monteverdi, Bellini… The colors of that voice—chocolate and silver, chestnuts and pearls—and that sublime, almost peerless* musicianship…
* [But for a certain Peruvian, uh huh!]
Though it's nearly 15 years old, "If you love me" still tops every recital disc I've heard for imagination, beauty, and sheer, infectious joy. (They're "just" arie antiche? Well, you know what they say: There are no small songs, only small singers—and small listeners.)
I first interviewed Bartoli a couple of years ago and was won over by her lively intelligence and exquisite manners. (That we are both fierce Francophiles also helped us hit it off.) So I was thrilled to sit down with her again. From Newsday, my Fast Chat with Cecilia Bartoli.
I calculated, correctly, that Newsday would let me get away with mentioning Fellini and Bernini but not castratos. (My editors are guys and, um, of delicate sensibilities.) So here are excerpts from Marie-Aude Roux's chewier interview, published by Le Monde, as well as outtakes from my interview.By the way, you can purchase "Opera proibita" here and find links to Bartoli's North American tour venues here (scroll down).
From Le Monde:
To market your disc, you chose to be Fellini's Sylvia from "La dolce vita," the incarnation of absolute womanhood, whereas you sing arias written for castratos. Why?
It's true that the idea of this album really excited me. The Fellinian visual from "La dolce vita," a film that Pasolini saw as a "baroque fresco" (Ekberg could be a Bernini), recounts the emancipation of morals after the death in 1957 of Pope Pius XII, who had exerted an iron rule over Rome. The film was censored though eventually defended by the Church.
Similarly, the prohibition of opera in the years following the 1703 earthquakes in Rome (on the pretext of a thanksgiving offering) did not prevent certain cardinals from supporting music drama. Men like Pietro Ottoboni and Benedetto Pamphili wrote librettos for oratorios, which were nothing other than operas on religious or biblical themes. They were sung by the same singers, with the same orchestras, using the same musical language.
Vocally, I also faced the challenge of measuring up to the castratos. Women at the time were banned from the stage. I'm not at all put off by the idea of managing to sing this music written for men—for the power, projection, and endurance of a male body.
Are you one of those artists who find a certain erotic interest in interpreting masculine roles?
For me, there is a certain psychological competition between women and men. Becoming aware of what the castratos could do technically—sing with a woman's voice in a man's body—forced me to further perfect my vocal technique.
I know that I'll never have a man's power, but that allowed me to improve my technical capabilities. I'm quite familiar with Rossini's virtuosity, but that was music written for women. Here [in music for castratos], you must be able to sustain very long lines. That's fine when you're singing alone, but in duet with a violin or a trumpet, you really have to become an instrument yourself. It's a lesson in breath control, which you must meld with expressivity. I'm a woman who is happy to sing castrato roles.
When one sees to what extent you embody Italian femininity, it's astonishing to learn of your fondness for male roles.
Being a voluptuous woman doesn't prevent me from dreaming of being a man who pays court to women!
After having played all the female roles in Così fan tutte, from the servant Despina to the intransigent Fiordiligi via the sensuality of Dorabella, I must say that portraying Don Giovanni is a real fantasy of mine!
I've sung Zerlina and Donna [Elvira] in that opera, but the role I would really like to sing at some point in my life is Don Giovanni. What wrong does he do? He is honest and genuine; he partakes of life's pleasures. But he is a force of nature who must be sacrificed in the end. Why must he die? Of what must he repent? He simply seduced women who were more than willing and killed a man who had challenged him to a duel! But there again, morality! The Catholic Church!
Outtakes from my interview with Bartoli:
Lately you have sung Cleopatra in Handel's "Giulio Cesare" and Fiorilla in Rossini's "Il turco in Italia." What draws you to given roles?
First of all, the music must convince me and touch me profoundly. Then, of course, it must be combined with a good libretto by a fine poet in which the character develops over the course of the opera.
I just made my début as Cleopatra, and I hope to portray this character on stage many more times, because she is a bewitching woman. Women like Cleopatra, Agrippina, Vitellia (in La clemenza di Tito) are so interesting.
Cleopatra fascinates me because she thinks she has everything under control. A struggle with her brother for the throne breaks out. But she falls in love with Caesar, and from that point on she realizes that she can't control anything—that love is [intrinsically] uncontrollable. She begins to experience emotions that basically shock her. I find this wonderful, that she abandons herself to her destiny. And the music is sublime, wouldn't you say?
Now, Fiorilla can almost seem like a more modern Cleopatra. Il turco in Italia explores a very important theme—women's rights—and perhaps for this reason it never had the great success of Barbiere or Cenerentola. Fiorilla in Turco can seem like a flighty woman, but the fundamental issue is the problem of couplehood. A woman marries a man, and after a while they have nothing more to say to each other. Hence, separation, she falls in love with the Turk—but not really. She's looking for a certain feeling, she misses being courted, which her husband no longer does. It's a very modern, very contemporary theme.
In the Mozart-da Ponte trilogy, you've sung all the female leads except the Countess and Donna Anna. Are those possibilities for the future?
The Countess, yes, because if you look at the score, the role lies mostly in the middle of the voice. Donna Anna has more of a soprano tessitura. But the problem is really that Donna Anna is a difficult woman. I don't understand her character. She's a liar, unlike Donna Elvira, who abandons herself to this love and would throw herself into the fire to save Don Giovanni. Elvira is the only person in the opera who grasps the end to which Don Giovanni will come. Donna Anna, instead, from the very beginning… Musically the role is sublime, with wonderful moments, stupendous arias, but it's something of a double role—if not actually triple! I just don't feel very close to her.
You've sung roles for mezzo and soprano, not only thanks to your extraordinary talents but also for historical reasons, correct?
In Mozart's day, the distinction [between mezzo and soprano] and the category "mezzo-soprano" didn't exist. There were "soprani primi" and "soprani secondi." They say that at times in Così fan tutte, singers really did trade off roles. I find this very important for artists. We are singer-actors; we tell stories. Because we tell stories, it's wonderful to have the chance to sing different roles in the same opera. In Così fan tutte—such an extraordinary opera, truly the universe of humanity—going from Dorabella to Fiordiligi, or vice versa, you have an incomparably deeper understanding of the work.
P.S. to Osvaldo Golijov: If Bartoli ends up commissioning a work from you, I'm sending you a bill!