Friday, December 24, 2010

Ceclia Bartoli: the limitations of being a mezzo

[This is copied from The Guardian.]

She's the most successful mezzo in the world, but Cecilia Bartoli can't help but feel she has been let down by the composers who only write for sopranos. 'I am, yes, I can admit it, quite sad about this," says Cecilia Bartoli gloomily. Outside, in the gathering dusk of her adoptive city of Zurich, it's beginning to snow. "My career – it could have been different." She throws a white scarf over the shoulder of her black polo neck sweater in a slightly irritated gesture.

The world's most celebrated mezzo-soprano is confessing her frustration at having an extraordinary voice for which no serious composer has written beautiful music. She would liked to have been a muse, but her destiny has been otherwise. "It would be very nice to have a composer of today composing for the voice of today, but I have not."

Her great vocal heroes and heroines of the 18th and 19th centuries were more fortunate. "I can admit it," she says, "I am jealous of these singers. I'm jealous in a way because today we don't have this rapport with the composer. We classical singers don't have this but pop singers have this. You mention Farinelli – Porpora was composing for him. Mozart composed for Nancy Storace. Rossini was composing for Isabella Colbran, Handel wrote all major roles for the castrato Senesino, even Mendelssohn wrote for Maria Malibran. I have not had this experience."

But why not? Bartoli's voice, even in its relatively immature form in her early 20s, captivated Barenboim and Karajan so much they called her agent demanding to work with her, and now fellow singers envy its range. Surely it should inspire composers? "It's become almost impossible. They – I would say the serious modern composers – don't want to compose tonal music any more. Who knows? Maybe it will change in the future."

So why not, while you wait, crossover to pop like so many of your peers have done? Then at least you might find someone who can write for your voice? "I'm not against this," she says, "but for me the real crossover that makes sense now is to make people cross the bridge to come and listen music they maybe have never heard before, music that I love, because this is what I can do best."

We're meeting in Bartoli's management's offices, ostensibly to talk about her new greatest hits collection, Sospiri, about which she is heroically upbeat, though I suspect it is not her thing at all. The sleeve notes include a treacly essay called Cecilia Bartoli and the Allure of a Sigh that begins: "What accounts for the unique flame that blazes in Cecilia Bartoli whenever she performs?"

"Look at the bubbles," she says pointing at the album cover in which she is photographed in mock-rapture amid bubbles – like a glamorous West Ham fan celebrating avoiding relegation. [?] "They wanted the bubbles," she says of her record company. "And I said 'Why not?'" The subtext: don't judge me for that, judge me for the 20 years of work inside – for my velvety legato, my spectacular coloratura, my sprightly melismas, my formidably maturing technique. [By all means!]

And we should. But we should also recognise that Sospiri is a collection of quieter arias conceived as mood music. There is a nagging sense that, for all its impeccable performances, this is just the CD that a Classic FM DJ could slip on at about 9.30pm while its demographic drifts off over Ovaltine.

But while Sospiri may belong to a genre satirised 30 years ago in the title of Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album, this disc of Italianate lollipops – Casta Diva, Una Voce Poco Fa, Ombra Mai Fu – also reminds us what makes Bartoli an overwhelmingly iconoclastic artist. The CD includes her interpretation of Gelido in Ogni Vena from Vivaldi's Farnace. It was Vivaldi, the forgotten composer of vocal music, whom she disinterred nearly 12 years ago. Her 1999 Vivaldi album made millions realise the Venetian wrote something other than The Four Seasons.

Were you using your star clout to do something you thought artistically worthwhile? "Yes. It was a success that was not anticipated and that gave me heart to carry on with other reinvestigations of neglected music." Decca, no doubt suspecting Bartoli had the golden touch, bankrolled albums that looked commercially dubious – her album of Gluck's Italian arias, another called Opera Proibita featuring music from operas banned by the church in her native Rome at the start of the 18th century, a disc of castrati arias and an album that paid homage to her 19th-century heroine Maria Malibran. All sold in the hundreds of thousands. "After this experience with Vivaldi, I thought may be I can do more research, more recording of esoteric works – and keep singing the popular classical repertoire as well."

It is through such research that she has, at least to her satisfaction, managed to retain integrity as a creative artist, bubbles notwithstanding. Inspired by the scholarly conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with whom she worked in her 20s, she has spent much time in European libraries scouring manuscripts to find music from the baroque period or the later bel canto era to reinterpret. Perhaps the best example is her 2008 album Sacrificium, which included 11 world premiere recordings of baroque arias originally sung by genitally-mutilated men.

"I was interested in castrati because what happened to them was the most criminal thing in the history of classical music," she says. "In Italy as many as 4,000 boys were castrated each year for about 100 years. From the families in the south of Italy, where they often had 10 or 12 children, one child would be sacrificed to the knife. They hoped this boy would save the family from poverty. In his time Farinelli was big like Michael Jackson so you can see why they would do it.

"But what a price! They would be castrated at six to seven to ensure the voice would sound like a female. Most of them became just miserable men. If 3,000 were castrated only 100 would make a career. The rest were rejected by society. Those who succeeded had voices with incredible expressivity. They were able to sing from the lowest to the highest registers."

But what could you, with all due respect, a woman, bring to castrati arias? Bartoli laughs at me for the question, which is only what I deserve. "It is difficult for anybody to sing as they did because castrati were men with female voices. These were men with big capacity of oxygen. For women it's impossible to reach the same capacity. Singing the woman repertoire is then much easier."

Why would you sing these challenging castrati arias, and so late in your career? Bartoli's left eyebrow shoots up at this, but she says: "It's because I now have the technique. When you start singing you are fresh you are young, but your technique is not solid. Today I can do much more with my voice than 20 years ago. I'm more in control. I know my instrument better. I'm like a painter, I can paint better – I have more colours in my paintbox."

Ten years ago Bartoli told an interviewer that a mezzo's best years are between the ages of 30 and 45. She is now 44. Is she steeling herself for inevitable career decline? Bartoli laughs at me again. "I did say that, but I am not going to retire soon." When will your career end? "It depends on how well you have used your instrument during your career. Take a singer like Pavarotti – Luciano was just choosy. He died with a still incredible voice. He was 71 and his instrument was almost perfect. He was choosing carefully what to do, not to spend the capital but only the interest."

Do you want to emulate this miracle of longevity? "I will also be choosy – like Luciano I won't spend the capital," she says. "If you do that you can really keep singing for a very long time."

Significantly, when Bartoli tells me of her forthcoming plans, she speaks not of a recital tour or an operatic engagement, even though her diary teems with them, but that she is going to curate the Salzburg Whitsun festival in 2012 – as if to say there is more to life and she would be kinder to herself and career to step off the endless globetrotting drudgery of recitals.

She is trying to perform two difficult roles at the same time: maintaining her integrity and her career longevity. Though born in Rome, she has settled in Zurich and has formed a close relationship with the city's opera house. How lucky for them, you might think – this is a woman who could have the Met, Covent Garden and many other great opera house begging her to perform. Instead she chooses to favour a cute little opera house. Why? "Because I can do relatively obscure things here that I wouldn't be able to do elsewhere." One of those things was to perform the title role in Halévy's Clari, an opera that languished for more than 150 years until Bartoli disinterred it recently, transforming its story of a humble milkmaid who captivates a duke into a topical tale of internet dating between a humble East European woman and a monied west European twerp.

It is here in January that Bartoli will sing in Rossini's little-performed opera Le Comte Ory. "Twenty years ago I played the page; now I am going to be the Countess," she giggles. The former role was a mezzo, the latter a soprano. Neither role is a proper star vehicle.

Bartoli doesn't mind: "I am not interested in fame. I am also a mezzo, which can have its limitations." Indeed, Bartoli's career options are limited not by the fact that serious composers haven't written for her, but because there are few roles for mezzos. When Bartoli made her 1996 debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York singing the role of Despina in Così Fan Tutte, Herbert Breslin, Luciano Pavarotti's manager, said waspishly: "She can't sing Mimi, she can't sing Tosca or La Traviata, and she can't sing Aida, Manon Lescaut, or Desdemona. There is not one major role she can sing. You can't be a major opera singer without singing the bread-and-butter repertoire. Big, big, big things don't happen to little Despina!"

Breslin was wrong. Two major mezzo roles stand out and Bartoli is obsessed with them. She has traced the performance history of two of Bellini's great bel canto operas, Norma and La Sonnambula, and found that they have been co-opted by sopranos. "Bellini composed Norma and La Sonnambula for Giuditta Pasta who was a mezzo. But this music was nearly forgotten until the 1950s when Maria Callas and Dame [Joan] Sutherland performed these roles and made them their own. But they are sopranos! So we have a false understanding of what Bellini did."

Her recording of La Sonnambula last year remains a historical corrective, but now she wants to make Norma her own too. "She was a created as a mezzo, so I want to claim her." It's a tough gig: Norma demands incredible vocal flexibility and emotional expressivity. German soprano Lilli Lehmann once remarked that singing all three Brünnhildes in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in one evening would be less stressful than singing one Norma.

In Dortmund this summer she sang the role in a concert performance. "I want to create a new vision for this bel canto opera on period instruments. I want to make Norma my own." Perhaps because Herbert Breslin was right and you don't have many big opportunities in your career? "I have made the opportunities despite how few roles for mezzos there are," she says. Did it rankle when he implied that big, big, big things don't happen to mezzos? "Fifteen years on from that I can say look at what I have done. And look at what I will do. I am not exactly a failure as a singer."

[May I take this opportunity to recommend Philip Glass. My brain is absolutely able to imagine this. Call him up. Dare him. Terrific article!]


Dr.B said...

In this comment from the Guardian a composer offers to compose something for her.

Lucy said...

Very interesting; thanks for reposting. Also, may bright Cecilia be inundated with song cycle offers worthy of her.

Anonymous said...

Ms Bartoli might be interested in a REAL composer in her own class, not people worldfamous in Leeds or known for concerts of choral (sic) music as is Rutter.

My god..


Dr.B said...

I suggested Glass because my brain immediately began composing a minimalist coloratura aria.