By Michael Roddy
LONDON, Dec 27 (Reuters) - Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia
Bartoli has released a year-end blockbuster that is part mystery
story, part research project and shows off a voice which only
seems to improve with age.
Bartoli's latest deluxe-packaged album "Mission" (Decca) is
devoted to the music of the late 17th-century Italian composer,
diplomat and perhaps spy, Agostino Steffani.
Steffani may have been a bit overlooked as a result of his
appearance at the end of the Renaissance and at the beginning of
the Baroque periods - until Bartoli's interest alighted on him.
"The variety is amazing in the music of Steffani, the slow
arias have very beautiful melodic lines, they are unbelievable,
it's quite hypnotic music," Bartoli said in a telephone
interview from Paris.
Since she burst upon the world in the 1990s, specialising
mostly in Mozart and Rossini, Bartoli has gone from strength to
strength, not only in digging up unusual repertoires, including
another deluxe compilation in 2009 devoted to music sung by
castrati, but also vocally.
Here's what else Bartoli had to say about Steffani and his
possible career as a spy, why she goes for the anti-diva look on
her recent album covers, and what she calls a Fellini-esque
experience at La Scala with conductor Daniel Barenboim:
Q: Is it true, then, that the voice improves with time?
A: "I think this is a very good time because of the maturity
of the technique. When you are young, of course, you have to
have a beautiful voice. This is a gift you receive, but you
don't have enough technique or experience. So this is a very
good time because I can really paint with my voice with so many
colours, like a painter. I love painting with the voice and I'm
of an age when I do this definitely better than 20 years ago."
Q: So this bit about Steffani being a spy, surely that was
dreamt up by the Decca marketing department?
A: "He had an incredible life as a priest, a missionary and
a diplomatic mission to arranging weddings between the royal
princes of that period. And also he was a kind of spy, in fact
he was a Catholic priest in the north of Germany, in the
Protestant area, and he spent lots of years in that area - it
was very unusual, very strange. Maybe he also had the mission to
convert (people) to Catholicism, who knows? We have lots of
speculation about him, all the mysterious things about this man.
There's still mystery."
Q: There's no mystery though that the cover for this album,
showing you bald-headed and wielding a crucifix, is "non-diva" -
like the cover on the "Sacrificium" album of castrati music,
with your head superimposed on the torso of a male statue.
A: "The idea was to have a cover related to the project and
it was a bit against the cliche of a diva who has to look
beautiful all the time. In a project like 'Sacrificium', when at
the beginning of the 18th century 3,000-4,000 boys were
castrated every year in Italy...how can I make a CD project
about this and make a cover with a beautiful, glamorous Vanity
Fair picture? This would be more embarrassing...People realise
there is a real story here to tell, it's not a compilation of
arias which you do for Christmas. And 'Sacrificium' was a huge
Q: Your concert recital earlier this month singing Handel,
Rossini and Mozart with Daniel Barenboim conducting at La Scala
in Milan, with a chorus of boos and whistles in the second half,
was perhaps less of a success?
A: "This story is repeating what happened to Carlos Kleiber,
one of the greatest conductors of our lives, also to (Maria)
Callas, (Luciano) Pavarotti. The concert was magnificent -
Handel, Mozart, Rossini - and then I believe at the very end
there was a very Fellinian situation. You think these things
don't happen anymore, that they only happen in the movies of
(Federico) Fellini but actually, no, this is happening. And it
seemed like a parody but the next morning I opened the newspaper
and (Silvio) Berlusconi is back (in Italian politics). And so I
said, 'Yes, of course.'
I think living in Italy is difficult but living without
Italy is impossible."
(Editing by Michael Roddy)