[This is translated from Die Welt. Their German is a bit above my grade.]
Music mystery: The singer Cecilia Bartoli explains how she and Donna Leon discovered the composer Agostino Steffani
by Manuel Brug
La Ceci, as the mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli is tenderly called by her fans, has taken three years since her so far sixth and most successful theme album "Sacrificium" about the "sacrifice" of Neapolitan eunuchs. Three years, where she could search for her follow-up project. The corresponding concert tour was still called "dangerous liaisons". A few weeks ago oblique YouTube clips appeared. Then, the true title of the project was eventually revealed: "Mission". Including a whole range of CD, DVD, iPad game, and even a new Donna Leon novel appears. It all revolves around the music of the mysterious singer (probably: castrato), composer, diplomat and perhaps spy Agostino Steffani (1645-1728). He was born in the Veneto, worked in Munich, Hannover, Düsseldorf, Rome and Brussels, died in Frankfurt, where he is buried in the Cathedral. He had his corner in the history of music as an important link between Carissimi, whose student he was, Scarlatti, and Handel. Now the 46 year old Bartoli with cleverly selected at times highly virtuosic, at times sensitive elegiac pieces from 12 operas, including four gorgeous duets with Philippe Jaroussky, would like to make him famous. Who, if not her should succeed at this?
We met in the 26th year of her career, the still best known mezzo-soprano in the world after the hurried presentation of the CD in the Munich Baroque Schloss Schleißheim - where Bartoli after concert, dinner and fireworks still in a green-pink dirndl had to tap a keg of beer. [Oktoberfest was fast approaching.]
DIE WELT: As I showed around the "mission" cover with the bald head, I was more than once asked: Oh God, does Bartoli have cancer? Are you being provocative?
Cecilia Bartoli: Of course not, but the cover is already attracting attention, if it fits. I think this worked well with "Opera Prohibita," where as Anita Ekberg reloaded I hop into the fountain. And also with my sexless statue on "Sacrifcium" I was very pleased. These photos should just tell you something, not just show me in a beautiful dress. That to me is far too easy, just like any colorful aria program. I want to convey a message and play a character. Senseless glamour photos I now feel are almost an insult. These travesties make me even richer as a performer. In "mission" we have gone a step further, as we tell a whole story in pictures that will trace the exciting and still enigmatic life of Steffani at least a little tongue in cheek. This mysterious man is my mission.
DIE WELT: With a big product family. Because you have sold 10 million CDs, does the record company give you total freedom?
Cecilia Bartoli: So far I have not disappointed them, although this time they were quite impatient, even nervous. Three years is long, but I want to be one hundred percent sure that it is good, for which I have spent so much effort. It's like with a good pasta ragout: you need the best ingredients - and much time.
DIE WELT: Do you actually always have several irons in the fire?
First one spins only a little, then one focuses oneself. No, I don't even have concepts for the next ten years, I want to be spontaneous, to start again from scratch after each CD. The notes need to track me down. And I have noticed that the composers in times of great change interest me especially, the links - such as Gluck and Salieri. They are no Handels and Mozarts, but they have enabled them and deserve our attention. Then we can often love the greats even more. I worked with Steffani sheet music, by the way, first in 2005 for "Opera Prohibita".
Are you here alone?
Of course not, I always put together my teams, sometimes coincidence also helps. The conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, with whom I ventured my first Norma, for example, has advised me on Steffani. Then also Diego Fasolis, with which I have now issued the CD. I knew the name, of course, had heard this and that, but the heavenly jewels of Steffani first found only by browsing. And not just the Chamber duets, for which he was known--and I absolutely wanted to sing with Philippe Jaroussky because our voices mingle so gloriously--, but also wonderful Opera Arias, that no one had touched. That speak of real, great feelings, convey in a very special way between Italian, German and French baroque style.
Which is already very much.
But not all! Because then was revealed an incredibly adventurous life between Italy, Germany and France, between Church and Palace diplomacy, as a missionary of Catholicism in Protestant lands, as a possible accomplice in the tragic Königsmarck-murder affair, where two lovers caressed each other in letters with texts from his opera libretti, to his estate, which disappeared in the Vatican, and only in the nineties was accessible again. That was more exciting.
So the sales-rich Italo-Crime expert Donna Leon had to enter!
No, no, you know exactly Donna's God is Handel, she even funded CD projects, and we've known each other a long time. I just wanted to share my discoveries with her. At first she was unwilling like everyone else, thought I wanted from her a small introductory text for a Handel CD. But then she quickly became as inflamed as I, and wrote a whole novel, that also reveals many Steffani facts, with a new main character, a clever doctor of musicology. Now she waits, if this perhaps could be a new character next to Commissario Brunetti. Her end remains open in any case.
CD, DVD, book, iPad - Bartoli on all channels!
Not Bartoli, "Mission" is my mission. With the iPad game we want to offer something for younger people, it's exciting and playful - and as a reward, there are Arias! I am very curious how this goes, although there is no killer game! There is a lot to tell about Steffani, that it needed no CD booklet. Although it's still pretty thick.
Such a range of products, to each a presentation in historical places, in Lucca, in the Palace of Caserta and now Schleissheim, where until recently Christoph Waltz as Cardinal Richelieu had his Office in the "three Musketeers" in just this Ballroom: Are you actually clear that such an effort is made only for you in the classical music industry?
Yet, that's why it is always an obligation in the next project. Schleißheim was built by elector Max Emanuel, with whom Steffani practically grew up, but he has probably never seen the building. This day is always a beautiful graduation ceremony for the long employment with a theme before it gets going live with the concerts, because I burst from tension and expectation.
Are you otherwise under pressure?
I try to not let it get to me, but clearly, the welfare of the company depends on such a very expensive CD. But my audience wants to be challenged, wants to learn something. I must surprise them with something new, otherwise people are almost disappointed. Therefore I hope also that those moments that inspire me to Steffani, who made me realize that this time he's the right one, and the audience let the sparks fly.
Which moments are those?
I always call it his transcendence, the excessiveness, which points to a different sound world. This is very delicate, but always felt. As well as the vulnerability of this music. And I'm hearing more and more Renaissance echoes.
Where did you find the sheet music?
We have first looked in Munich and Hanover, there's also a lot, but the best and most editions were found in London and Vienna, which indicates just how popular he was, that people prepared copies there. I've plowed through it all on microfilm.
With the castrati, as with the young Steffani, always resonates a moment of sexual diffusion. You never know exactly what attracted the Roman cardinals to these singers, but also the young Handel. And Steffani was by none other than the Elector Ferdinand Maria of Bavaria when barely 13 years old, was brought from Padua to Munich ...
He had apparently fallen in love with his beautiful voice, or was there more, we do not know. I could not find any clues. And we must not forget: Gay or not, it was in the Baroque period a very different definition than it has today.
Do you believe in a Steffani Renaissance?
Otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here! But more must follow. Hello Decca, we should be sure to record his opera "Niobe." Have you heard?
Cecilia Bartoli: Mission (Decca) Donna Leon: The Jewels of Paradise (Diogenes)