Cecilia Bartoli

Cecilia Bartoli: »For throat and soul alike«

The opera singer talks about the fascination of Farinelli, about Mozart’s humanity and the fun factor inherent in virtuoso circus artistry.

It’s 35 years since Cecilia Bartoli made her opera debut as Rosina in Rossini’s »Barber of Seville« in her native Rome, where she was born as the daughter of two opera singers in 1966. In all likelihood, no one imagined at the time that this whirlwind of a singer would change the world of classical music forever. She has remained loyal to Rossini since then, carrying on vigorously the Rossini renaissance initiated by singers like Marilyn Horne und Teresa Berganza thanks to her phenomenal coloratura. And although one cannot help but be surprised that Ms Bartoli didn’t appear at the Vienna State Opera until 2022, when she gave her overdue premiere there, it was with Rossini of course – in the role of Fiorilla in »Il turco in Italia«.

A busy singer, artistic director in Salzburg and Monte Carlo – does your day have more than 24 hours?

Cecilia Bartoli: I have to admit, there are days in my life that are pretty full. But I see what I do not as  work, but as a fulfilment of my passion. Plus, in other areas I’ve been making it a point for a long time to take things more slowly – when travelling, for instance. As a rule I take the train, and I rarely travel abroad. When I do, I prefer to go by sea.

What drives you in this passion of yours?

As an artist, I’ve always been driven by curiosity and enthusiasm. This is how my CD projects came about. When I was fascinated by a composer or singer, I wanted to know more about the person and his or her world. How did they live? What did their repertoire consist of? What can I learn from their manuscripts? My work as director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival was essentially a product of these projects. In Salzburg I had the chance to present the bigger picture, to go beyond my own repertoire and portray other periods and areas.

Will you be pursuing this successful concept work in Monte Carlo? What can the audience there expect from opera director Cecilia Bartoli?

At the moment I’m still working on my first season starting in mid-September. In an opera house that plans for an entire season, you obviously structure things differently from a concentrated festival. Here, too, I will be thinking along thematic lines of course, but in contrast to Salzburg they will evolve more slowly and over a much longer period of time.

Are you secretly preparing to retire from the stage with these managerial positions? Does the public need to fear that you soon won’t be appearing as a singer any more?

I was born to be on stage! So I plan to continue singing, in productions in Salzburg and Monte Carlo, and occasionally with my own orchestra Les Musiciens du Prince-Monaco on tour to cities I love such as Hamburg. I see my administrative positions as an extension of my musical work, as an opportunity to think in broader and more comprehensive terms. When I’m on stage myself, the absolute priority is working together with colleagues – with the members of the orchestra, the conductor, the producer and the costume and set designers. The artistic experience that moves the audience and electrifies the audience can only be pulled off if we all agree and give the best possible performance as a team. Otherwise, our work makes no sense at all.

Cecilia Bartoli
Cecilia Bartoli at the Elbphilharmonie with the Musiciens du Prince-Monaco (Mozart: La clemenza di Tito) © Daniel Dittus

»Rossini is one of my most loyal friends«

Rossini has been your constant companion since your debut in 1987. Don’t you ever get tired of his music?

Rossini is one of my most loyal friends, and a kind of fatherly mentor! His world is so full of variety, from jovial farce through elegant comedy to shattering tragedy. His roles cover an incredible spectrum: Rosina or Cenerentola, for example, are young and inexperienced, so that they are easily influenced by men. Desdemona is too trusting, she is submissive, but she is also self-confident and puts up resistance. Fiorilla in »Il turco in Italia« is married, and walks all over her spouse, while Isabella in »L’italiana in Algeri« keeps several lovers, and bosses half the town around. With some experience of life, and when you have spent some time developing both vocally and musically, you can pull off these different roles well.

Isn’t there a fair amount of virtuoso circus artistry involved as well?

Definitely: part of the attraction of Rossini’s music is that it’s full of virtuosity. You have to try and depict the circus element to perfection, while at the same time filling it with new meaning, different colours and expression, otherwise the music becomes rigid and mechanical. In terms of technique, Rossini’s music, just like that of his favourite composer Mozart, is balm for the voice: if you work with precision, this kind of music looks after your voice.

With your commitment to Rossini, and no less with your concept albums focussing on Vivaldi, Gluck or the Neapolitan School, you opened the door not only for these composers, but also for many young singers who followed in your footsteps – countertenors in particular. Were you aware of that?

At the outset of my career I had the immense good fortune to work together with a conductor like Claudio Abbado, for example, who helped me discover a new approach to Rossini. Then there was Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who introduced me to the world of Haydn. Personalities like these sparked an important renewal of the opera repertoire, and as a young singer I was part of that. Later on, my own explorations made me part of the »avant-garde« myself, with projects that opened up new areas of the Baroque and Classical repertoire. I really am extremely happy, and even a little proud, when I see that even leading opera houses that traditionally used to focus on the big 19th and early 20th century works now have Vivaldi operas, Italian operas by Gluck and lesser-known Rossini works on the programme. This development has been accompanied by the appearance of a generation of excellently-trained young singers who represent a new type of voice and a new style of singing: prequisites for putting on adequate productions of these works.

Cecilia Bartoli sings Rossini

Are recordings still important for singers nowadays?

The record industry has changed dramatically. But recordings are essential for making new repertoire better known. For us musicians they are totally important: you learn to listen to yourself exactly and to improve until you reach perfection. Young artists now have scarcely any chance to make a properly-produced studio album. This prompted me to create a label called »Mentored by Bartoli«, with which I help super young singers like Javier Camarena or Varduhi Abrahamyan make a debut album. Like many others, these two are already pursuing a brilliant international stage career, but they still don’t have a solo album making them internationally visible. I’m happy to step in here as the midwife!

On 6 June 2023, you will perform the programme of your latest concept album, devoted to the Farinelli phenomenon, in the Elbphilharmonie. Why are we so fascinated by this, the most famous of all castrati, to this day?

Farinelli was one of the greatest singers of his time, and above all an outstanding artist. It’s true that we can’t hear his voice any  more, but we can learn a lot about him from the music: how long he was able to hold his breath, what a huge vocal range he possessed, what widely differing roles he sang and how intense and subtle his expression was. In addition to the music written for him, Carlo Broschi fascinates me as a person: his life was different from that of most castrati, and he lived in Italy, England and Spain, where  he was awarded the highest honours. He must have been highly intelligent, but at the same time very human and modest.

Jacopo Amigoni: Bildnis des Sopranisten Carlo Broschi, genannt Il Farinelli
Jacopo Amigoni: Portrait of the Soprano Carlo Broschi, called Il Farinelli © Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

You also made a guest appearance at the Elbphilharmonie in December 2022 in Mozart’s last opera, »La clemenza di Tito«. What role does Mozart play in your life as a singer?

Mozart’s music is likewise among the greatest ever written, in my opinion! Every time you discover something new, every time it moves you to the depth of your soul. Text and content alike are simply fantastic, as is the score itself: a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk. Like Rossini, Mozart’s music is good for a singer’s voice: it encourages precision and discipline. And it lightens your heart and puts you in a good mood, even when it’s sad. Hardly any other composer is as cathartic as Mozart. As a singer, you can’t avoid returning to Mozart time after time: his music is good for throat and soul alike.

»La clemenza di Tito« is the least oft-performed of Mozart’s late operas. Do you have any explanation?

I think it has to do with the subject, not with the music. In contrast with the Da Ponte trilogy (»Figaro«, »Don Giovanni«, »Così fan tutte«,) and »Die Zauberflöte«, all of which are governed by new rules of stage aesthetics and social politics, »Clemenza di Tito« is in the tradition of Baroque opera seria, making it seem a relic from an earlier time. Interestingly enough, the musical style Mozart adopts in this, his final opera, is the same as in »Don Giovanni«, for example. And the characters themselves are just as genuine and sincere, warm-hearted and human as a Fiordiligi. »Clemenza« only differs from Mozart’s other operas of that time formally and stylistically – with a libretto based on Metastasio’s lofty written style –, while the actual characters no longer have anything in common with their rather stilted counterparts in Baroque opera.

In Hamburg we see you in the breeches part of Sesto...

… which is one fine example of how Mozart uses deeply-felt music to turn a character into a real, complex person with strengths and weaknesses. Sesto’s arias are marvellous, and I’ve had them in my repertoire for many years. But the real wonder of Mozart operas lies in the ensemble numbers, so it’s good that we perform the complete opera in Hamburg.

You appear together with Les Musiciens du Prince-Monaco, an ensemble that you helped set up. Why do so many Early Music singers found their »own« ensembles, such as Philippe Jaroussky or Nathalie Stutzmann?

I was encouraged to do so in 2016 by Prinz Albert II and his sister Caroline, Princess of Hanover. The Musiciens du Prince-Monaco are a real »court orchestra« that plays historic instruments. With the court orchestra we are carrying on a tradition that was widespread in 18th and 19th century Europe. Princes and kings maintained their own outstanding orchestras for prestige reasons. The musicians themselves used these ensembles as an important setting to experiment, where they had the chance to try out new projects while fulfilling the highest artistic standards. In this tradition, Les Musiciens du Prince-Monaco under the baton of Gianluca Capuano bring together the best musicians I have worked with over the years. The team spirit we have established enables us to reach standards that would not be possible with a »normal« group under »normal« conditions.

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