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An Interview with Cecilia Bartoli

Cecilia BartoliMONTE-CARLO - A visit to Monaco enabled us to interview Cecilia Bartoli who had installed herself for a few days prior to a recital in the jewel box Opéra. She spoke about her new interest in the baroque period, her debut at the Met and plans for the future. OperaNet: Your career got off to a jet start almost ten years ago. You are still singing more or less the same repertoire, you're always on the go, always singing somewhere. How do you keep from going stale?

Cecilia Bartoli: For starters, by working a bit less. It's the only way to relax and hold on to one's pleasure in singing. But you can only enjoy yourself by not singing every night.

OperaNet: How much do you sing these days?

CB: I work during six or seven months and the rest, in fact, is for my private life. It's absolutely necessary in order to keep one's balance. My time off is spread out over the year, perhaps a month, or a week between engagements. It depends on the project. Taking the time all at once would mean starting from scratch each time.

OperaNet: How do you split up your engagements?

CB: One third opera, one third concerts and one third recitals.

OperaNet: What do you sing in your concerts with orchestra? Opera arias, works like Les Nuits d'Eté.

CB: Both, in fact. I sing Mozart concert arias, his Exultate Jubilate, sacred cantatas by Vivaldi.

OperaNet: And the Berlioz?

CB: Not yet, but I have sung La Morte d'Ophélie with piano, and also the song "Zaïde". That's all for the moment. A bit of opera, two or three productions a year, and the rest is divided between recitals and concerts.

OperaNet: How many different operas do you sing? If we've counted correctly, there are only five roles in your repertoire: Despina, Cherubino, Zerlina, Rosina and Cenerentola. You've recorded others, of course, but not sung them on stage, like Sesto or Idamante...

CB: Not yet, but there is a sixth role, Haydn's Euridice, which I sang with Harnoncourt last year and have also recorded with Christopher Hogwood. Next year I will add another opera to my repertoire, Pergolesi's Nina, ovvera la pazzia par amore. I'm waiting a bit before I start doing the travesty roles on stage because I don't feel entirely comfortable in those parts right now. I would like to do them...

OperaNet: And Cherubino?

CB: Cherubino is a bit androgynous. You don't know how old he is, what he's like. For Idamante or Sesto or Haendel's Rinaldo, we'll have to wait a while.

OperaNet: But you could just as easily sing the female roles in Handel because the tessitura isn't that high.

CB: Yes, but my voice definitely has a mezzo color, even though I also have an easy extension with helps with a role like Euridice in Haydn's L'Anima del Filosofo which was written for a soprano; it's very low but goes up to high C. I like to sing over a wide range, it's good for me to be able to exploit my entire voice.

OperaNet: In your recordings of Mozart and Rossini, you don't seem to make a difference between categories. Do you think you might ever sing, for example, Fiordiligi or Semiramide on stage?

CB: Not at all. But you know that there wasn't always the tendency to catalogue the voices. If you look at the score of Nozze di Figaro, you'll see that all the women's roles are for sopranos. Cherubino is not a mezzo. The difference is supplied by vocal color. Fortunately you aren't categorized as in verismo, for example, or in Verdi. A Verdian mezzo-soprano is a very different voice from the Mozartean mezzo-soprano. Concerning the roles Rossini wrote for Isabella Colbran, we'll see. I'm concentrating a lot more at the moment on baroque music, like Vivaldi. Hogwood and I are discussing concerts and also recording Haendel's Rinaldo, among a great many projects. I like making music with old instruments, something I've just discovered.

OperaNet: You've just recorded a disc of French songs with Maestro Chung. Is this a new direction?

CB: Yes, a bit more modern, perhaps. The disc is quite interesting. There are the Ravel songs which are well known, but there are also some songs of Bizet, some of which are not well known. And then there are totally unknown songs by Pauline Viardot Garcia which I find extremely beautiful. She was not only an extraordinary singer but also a compositrice.

OperaNet: Do you sing in German?

CB: Not yet. German is a very beautiful language but I can't speak it yet. It doesn't flow and I need to be able to feel in German. It will take a bit more time.

OperaNet: You just made your debut at the Metropolitan Opera. How did it feel?

CB: It went very well. The Met is a big house, but on stage you don't have that impression; it's when you're sitting in the theatre that you realize how big it is. The acoustics are superb and it's an easy house to sing in. Unfortunately, it's difficult to have the feeling of being in contact with the extraordinary audience. It's a pity. Watching an opera like Cosi fan Tutte in such a place - especially during the recitatives, coloring all the words, and Despina has lots to say in this opera - means you lose something. And then, all those opera glasses fixed on you, it's a strange sensation. I was in New York for two and a half months - a long period - and I think I convinced Mr. Volpe [the Met's General Manager] that they had to find a theater in which to perform all the baroque operas, a Broadway theater even, because there are several which are suitably small. While I was in New York I went to BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] to see Handel's Orlando with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. I was so surprised that there was such a theater in which you could present these works.

OperaNet: How did you like the performance?

CB: It's hard to say; I was totally disoriented, coming from the Met. Carsen could have worked more on the characterizations. And it's incredible that that poor girl spent so many hours in the water without ever getting a cold. But I liked the orchestra a lot [the performance was recorded by ERATO in January 1996].

OperaNet: It's strange, but the conductors specializing in making music with old instruments are all beginning to realise that they want voices which have more body than the little white voices which had been inflicted on us for too long. René Jacobs calls upon Jennifer Larmore or Maria Bayo for Giulio Cesare, for example.

CB: I found working with Harnoncourt and the Concentus an extraordinary experience. It is thanks to him that we have rediscovered an opera like L'Anima del Filosofo which I had never seen. It's true that Sutherland performed it, but that was more than thirty years ago.

OperaNet: And if you let the others know, like Christie, Gardiner or Jacobs, to mention but three and in alphabetical order, that you're available, I'm sure they'd be delighted.

CB: If you think about the immensity of the baroque repertoire, you can no longer say that I only sing five roles. The number of roles is limited only if you consider two composers [Rossini and Mozart], but the moment you consider the baroque repertoire...

OperaNet: And it's more in that direction that you see your career developing..

CB: Rather than towards verismo, absolutely. I'm clearly a child of the eighteenth century. Rossini or Bellini is absolutely the limit. It's different in recital. It's another world and you must make a great distinction..

OperaNet: Are there any singers who have influenced you?

CB: My parents were singers themselves and they gave me my first lessons. There are singers today whom I admire, like Anne Sofie von Otter or Christa Ludwig, among others, and also singers of the past. I've listened to Conchita Supervia's recordings which are extraordinary, the way she sings Rossini, her ideas - and it's almost 80 years ago - it's unbelievable. Her singing is very modern; one can like or dislike the voice, there is the vibrato, but that's not the most important aspect. You can see the personality. The voice is certainly important and you can hear if it's beautiful or not, it's the gods who decide; it's more a question of what you do with the voice, which is the mysterious element. It's the personality behind the voice which makes the artist. The voice is a gift of God, but if you're not able to use this gift, what's left? Nothing but a beautiful voice, without nuance or color.

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