‘Mission’ Possible: Cecilia Bartoli Rules the Classical Roost

Cecilia Bartoli: ‘I’m going against the typical cliché of a diva, of being beautiful all the time!’

With a staggering eight million CDs sold, more than 100 weeks ranking in the international pop charts, numerous Golden Discs, four Grammys (USA), nine Echos and a Bambi (Germany), two Classical Brit Awards (UK), and the Victoire de la musique (France) under her belt, Cecilia Bartoli is ruling the roost in classical music. She is also, as she told Robert Siegel, host of NPR’s All Things Considered, “the Indiana Jones of classical.”

Indeed, if a sense of adventure means anything, she and Indy may well have a lot in common. In 2005 she released Opera Proibita, a collection of music that had been stifled by Papal censorship in her native Rome in the 18th century. Maria (2007) was a tribute to the mezzo-soprano Maria Maliban, a shooting star of 19th century bel canto opera. In 2009 Bartoli released Sacrificium, a collection of arias written for castrati. The sleeve picture featuring Bartoli’s androgynous-looking head on a nude male statue was not without its critics. On her acclaimed new album, Mission, she’s described by The Telegraph’s Adam Sweeting as “a bald-headed Renaissance cleric, thrusting a crucifix in front of her, as though about to burn a cart-load of heretics at the stake.”

“I’m going against the typical cliché of a diva, of being beautiful all the time!” she told Sweeting. “Also, I said I’m tired of doing covers with a glamorous picture that gives no sense of the musical project. With Sacrificium I wanted to present beautiful baroque music from Naples, but in Italy 4,000 boys were castrated every year. I thought how can I make a beautiful and smiling cover and talk about these cruel things? The cover must be connected with my project.”

Mission introduces her most recent “find,” the late-17th-century Italian Agostino Steffani.

“Steffani actually is a quite mysterious composer,” Bartoli says. “I always wanted to do music of a composer which was, let’s say, a pre-Baroque project. He composed wonderful music and beautiful melodies–beautiful, rhythmic arias and energetic pieces full of fire.”

From Cecilia Bartoli’s Mission, Agostino Steffani’s Ogni core può sperar

Steffani was about much more than music, however. He was implicated in a murder plot, for one. Though born in Italy in 1654, Steffani’s prodigious musical gifts earned him appointments at the courts of Bavaria and Hanover. However, so adept did he prove at fulfilling sensitive diplomatic roles that he became embroiled in considerable political intrigue. He was dangerously close to the perpetrators of the murder of Count Konigsmarck in 1694, after the count had been having an affair with Princess Sophie Dorothea of Hanover (the mother of the future George II of England). Indeed, the lovers used to correspond in coded messages that used lines from his operas.

Murky dynastic conspiracies aside, Steffani’s music lies at the heart of Mission. His output was immense, comprising orchestral music, duets, choral music including a particularly fine Stabat Mater, and at least 15 operas. His cosmopolitan career meant that he was exposed to music from all over Europe.

“He went to Paris and he met Lully, who influenced some of his orchestral music,” Bartoli says. “But in some arias I can also hear Monteverdi.

“He’s linked to Corelli, Cavalli and Vivaldi, and I believe he is like a grandfather of Handel. He was really a European composer.”

‘Beautiful melodies, high drama’: Cecilia Bartoli introduces Mission, with scenes from the recording studio during album sessions

Steffani and his music are little known today, but Mission is giving his work a higher profile than it has had since his own time, if not ever. Bartoli says that because Steffani was an Italian who spent most of his life in Germany, he never quite made his mark musically in either culture. Then there were his political pursuits.

“The diplomatic missions, at a certain point in his life, were more important, and he had to quit music,” Bartoli says.

Most of the two dozen arias on the new album have never been recorded. Steffani, Bartoli says, “is a forgotten genius who’s been overlooked for far too long.”

From Cecilia Bartoli’s Mission, a duet with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky on Agostino Steffani’s T’abbraccio mia diva

The range of Steffani’s output meant that it was impossible to offer a comprehensive survey on a single disc, and Bartoli wasn’t able to include instrumental pieces that would have offered a fuller flavor of the composer’s scope, although she says she will be adding some to her concert program. But, as Sweeting notes in The Telegraph, “there’s plenty here to dazzle and seduce. There are hectic, percussive dance pieces, dramatic brass-led calls to arms, and several duets with the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, whose voice makes a fascinating contrast with Bartoli’s somewhat raunchier mezzo. One of the most arresting inclusions is ‘Dell’alma stanca a raddolcir le temper,’ from the opera Niobe.

“Ah yes, this is a masterpiece,” Bartoli told Sweeting. “To me this is a transcendental piece. It talks about the cosmos and the planets but without necessarily talking about religion. It’s phenomenal.”

(Sources: Adam Sweeting, excerpt from interview published in The Telegraph, Nov. 11, 2012; NCPR News from NPR)

 

 

‘a showcase for the art of singing at its finest’

 

The best performers marshall and release a special energy that sweeps up anyone within its force field. Italian mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, one of those rare beasts, pounces on us again today with the release of another album of wonders: Mission, dedicated to forgotten composer Agostino Steffani (1654-1728).

This Decca album of 21 arias and four duets–all but three in their world-premiere recording on CD–with equally charismatic French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky is spectacularly sung and richly accompanied by period-instrument ensemble I Barocchisti under leader Diego Fasolis.

This is a showcase for the art of singing at its very finest, where every note, inflection, breath, trill and phrase serves the art of translating the score into a meaningful experience for the listener.

From Cecilia Bartoli’s Mission: Agostino Steffani’s  ‘Schiere invitte, non tardate’– Alarico il Baltha

It’s something Bartoli (and Jaroussky) has made a life’s mission. In the past, there have been times when the mezzo’s exertions have seemed a bit much, like an overdecorated cake with more cream than substance. But thanks to the smart layering of bravura arias with more introspective material, the album unfolds like its own opera.

Bartoli has also restrained her penchant for melodramatic sighs in favour of silken legatos as she lets her remarkable voice and technique work their magic.

There is a lot to admire in the background to this album. Bartoli, a compulsive seeker, has gone out before to dig up interesting music wrapped in stories long buried in the annals of European music history.

Here, we get a glimpse of the music and life of a fascinating character who went from being a choirboy in Padua to Roman Catholic bishop charged with bringing Protestant North Germans back into the papist fold.

Somewhere in the whirlwind that was this man’s life, he managed to write a number of operas that, judging from the music on this disc, are every bit as worthy of our attention as those of Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel.

From Cecilia Bartoli’s Mission: Agostino Steffani’s Tra Le Guerre E Le Vittorie

As the 48 pages of background in the CD package point out, Steffani fell through history’s cracks because he spent so much time in Germany: He wasn’t German, so that country’s music historians didn’t pay attention, yet he didn’t spend enough time in Italy to establish a legacy in any one place.

Steffani’s is a story filled with intrigue, changes of vocation and location and even, according to Bartoli, that he was a castrato. There’s so much potential here that Bartoli inspired novelist Donna Leon to spin the pieces into her latest bit of historical fiction, The Jewels of Paradise.

The massive marketing juggernaut that someone like Cecilia Bartoli can muster means there’s even an iPad game associated with the album.

But all of this would be totally meaningless without the main ingredient, fabulous music–and one couldn’t ask for better than what we hear in Mission. This is a must-listen for fans of Baroque opera, and, thanks to the quality of the musicmaking, something everyone else should at least sample, as well. —John Terauds, Musical Toronto

 

‘Bartoli is an operatic tigress…’

Worried about the health of the classical recording industry? Still wanting the physical pleasure of a CD (or book) in the hand rather than submitting to an online cultural life? If so, Cecilia Bartoli’s new album may give you cause for hope.

The Italian mezzo’s Mission is housed in a luxurious 173-page hardcover book, drawing on an obviously plush budget to assert that Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) was the greatest Italian composer between Monteverdi and Vivaldi.

Bartoli has taken to the project like a woman possessed.

The book features an extravagant photo-shoot in which Bartoli, with shaven head, plays a composer who also happened to be a priest, a diplomat and, if we believe the singer’s own theories, possibly a castrato.

Mission is part of a bigger marketing exercise that includes Olivier Simonnet’s “cinematographic vision” available on DVD and Mission: The Game coming soon on iPad. Donna Leon, whose latest novel, The Jewels of Paradise, uses Bartoli’s discoveries to fuel its narrative, claims that her friend’s musical excavations are in the same league as Howard Carter discovering the tomb of King Tut.

Clearly, there is ample diversion to be had before sampling even a semiquaver of Steffani.

From Cecilia Bartoli’s Mission: Agostino Steffani’s Dal Tuo Labbro Amor M’invita

The CD offers a generous 25 tastings and, when the 2010 Covent Garden production of Steffani’s Niobe, Queen of Thebes received lukewarm critical praise, perhaps an anthology is the best approach.

Bartoli is an operatic tigress and relishes the primary emotions of rage, fear, lust and anguish, launching the disc with a flaring battle cry, against the trumpeting splendour of I Barocchisti under Diego Fasolis.

Within a track, soothing lutes introduce contemplation, with strings and woodwind entwining around the mezzo’s expressive bel canto. The disc offers thrilling opportunities for operatic anger, a genre in which Bartoli excels.

She is particularly terrifying in a punchy aria from The Battle between Hercules and Acheloo, singing of flying vipers and horrible monsters, against what sounds like a major volcanic eruption from I Barocchisti’s percussion section.

Not all is thunder and fury, however; fans of Philippe Jaroussky will enjoy the French countertenor in four duets that offer some gentler joys. –William Dart, New Zealand Herald

 

‘…the best case imaginable for Steffani’s music…’

For Mission, Bartoli has unearthed and recorded the arias of Agostino Steffani (1654-last seen in 1728), an Italian-born choirboy/composer/diplomat/priest who lived in Germany from age 12. The CD, housed in a hardbound booklet a good ¾-inch thick, comes accompanied by at least 29 pages of essays, repeated in French and German; maps, copious photos, and illustrations; and, thank goodness, the Italian texts, again in three languages. As if that weren’t enough, the CD’s release is timed with the publication of Donna Leon’s novel, The Jewels of Paradise, inspired by the Mission Project. For all we know, Madonna will base her next road show on the recording.

Once again, it’s only natural to wonder whether Bartoli and Steffani are worthy of so much attention. Having listened to the tracks multiple times, I can only concur with the assertion, in the liner notes, that Steffani deserves to be considered as one of the finer Italian composers active in the period between Monteverdi and Vivaldi. The sheer breadth of his accomplishment, and his staggering ability to alternately grip you with excitement and utterly beguile the senses with seductive melodies, takes the breath away …

… Or at least when Bartoli is the lead singer and is joined by ensemble I Baroccchisti, Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzera, and the wonderful countertenor Philippe Jaroussky (who performs in four duets). Superbly conducted by Diego Fasolis, these artists make the best case imaginable for Steffani’s music.

From Cecilia Bartoli’s Mission: Agostino Steffani’s Timori, Ruine (Le Rivali Concordi)

Bartoli is so filled with energy in her opening exhortation to ransack Rome, “Schiere invite, non tardate,” and so “guilty” of pushing her voice to its absolute limit, that she sounds as if she’s about to bust a gut. Perhaps that’s what it takes to hurl out her several high Bs with such startling force.

Before Bartoli’s curtain-raiser steals the show, she transforms from warrior to kitten. Adorable in “Sì, sì, riposa, o caro … Palpitanti sfere belle,” where she simulates drifting off to sleep; singing heavenly in the gorgeous aria “Notte amica al cieco Dio”; and contrasting wonderfully with Jaroussky in duets both serene and sensational, altogether she is a joy.

The care that Fasolis and I Baroccchisti have devoted to instrumentation deserves copious praise. Color and texture reign supreme, with instrumental combinations chosen to highlight the overtones in Bartoli’s voice. —Jason Victor Serinus in San Francisco Classical Voice

 

‘gloriously lyrical’

Cecilia Bartoli’s album covers keep getting scarier: In this anthology of arias, duets and choruses by Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), Bartoli appears on the cover bald, wearing a priest’s collar, sternly brandishing a cross, as if her admirers are vampires. Perhaps they are. But the photo is actually riffing on composer Steffani’s extramusical life as a bishop.

Though Steffani can be short-breathed and expressively limited compared to Bach and Handel, the music is as gloriously lyrical as that of any baroque composer. The complete range of genres is here, and even if much of the music isn’t all that different from what the early-music community has heard before, there’s Bartoli’s considerable and undimmed charisma.

The highest voltage is heard in four duets with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, her technical and dramatic equal. Clearly, Bartoli’s next disc ought to be duets with the new generation of baroque specialists, most of whom were no doubt influenced by her. —David Patrick Stearns at NewsObserver.com