Profile of opera phenomenon Cecilia Bartoli
Across three decades the Italian superstar has become one of the best-selling classical artists
A name that is shared with the patron saint of music, even saying ‘Cecilia’ out loud – with ch’s and Italianate long eeee-type vowels – evokes the sound of music in the air. Add the surname Bartoli and an opera phenomenon is the result. Born in Rome, to parents who were both professional singers (her mother was her singing teacher), perhaps it was inevitable that Cecilia Bartoli would have a career in music. That it would be quite so stellar was less predictable.
Bartoli is one of the top best-selling classical artists of today, with more than ten million audio and video recordings sold worldwide. Without any gimmicky marketing ploys, her sales success has been the result of complete integrity in what she does and how well she does it. For Edinburgh International Festival audiences, the chance to hear her sing the title role of Norma in Bellini’s tragic tale about the oppressed (ancient druids) and their oppressors (Romans) is second to none.
For anyone still without a ticket, the phrase ‘sell your granny’ comes to mind. Given its world premiere at the 2013 Salzburg Whitsun Festival (of which Bartoli has been artistic director for the past five years), the production of Norma which is staged in Edinburgh has also been seen at Salzburg in summer 2015, Zurich Opera later that year and Monte Carlo Opera in February of this year. It’s a production very much driven by Bartoli, and uses a new critical edition of Bellini’s score, restoring his original tempi, dynamics, phrasing and a tonal palette which suits both the music and Bartoli’s exceptional voice.
So what’s all the fuss about? Firstly, just listen to her. A coloratura mezzo with an astonishing range of vocal colour, the big number in Norma is ‘Casta Diva’, a prayer to the moon. As well as her recording of Norma, there are plenty more classics to choose from in her repertoire. Here are seven of the best …
Norma – Decca Classics 2013 – listen in advance of the show (or instead-of for the less lucky)
The Barber of Seville – Decca 1991 – the cavatina ‘Una voce poco fa’ never fails to thrill with its vocal pyrotechnics
Sospiri – Decca 2010 – chilled arias collection
If You Love Me: 18th Century Italian Songs – Decca 1992 – top of Billboard’s classical chart for months in 1993
Othello – Decca Classics DVD 2014 – same directing team (Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier) as for Norma
Essential Mozart: 32 of His Greatest Masterpieces – Decca 2001 – the title says it all
Cecilia and Bryn at Glyndebourne – Opus Arte HD-DVD 1999 – songs and arias with everyone’s favourite Welsh bass-baritone
With a professional career spanning almost 30 years, Cecilia Bartoli’s success has, of course, had its pivotal moments. Here are some of them …
Off-stage Shepherd Boy in Puccini’s Tosca at the age of nine for Rome Opera
Signing up for vocal training at Rome’s Academy of St Cecilia, one of the oldest musical institutions in the world aged 17, after flirting with flamenco dancing as a teenager
Appearance on Italian talent show, Fantastico, hosted by opera singers Leo Nucci and Katia Ricciarelli, with Bartoli performing Offenbach
Singing in Bach’s B Minor Mass, aged 23, with Karajan conducting at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival which she now curates
American debut at the Lincoln Center in a Mostly Mozart concert in 1990, singing excerpts from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito; rave reviews, with the word now out about her remarkable talent
Bartoli made her operatic stage debut as Rosina in April 1993 in Houston Grand Opera’s production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville
Metropolitan Opera, New York plays host to her 1996 debut in Mozart, returning in 1997 for Rossini and in 1998 with more Mozart
In 2000, she made her first appearance at Deutsche Oper, Berlin and in 2001, a long-awaited debut at London’s Royal Opera House
At the age of 50, Bartoli has a long string of operatic roles totally nailed, with quite a few of them first taken on board in her 20s, a time when most opera singers are just warming up. For the most part, she has homed in on Mozart and the bel canto era of early 19th century Italian opera, although, more recently, she’s looked to the castrato stars of Neapolitan opera of the 18th century. Here are some of the characters she has met along the way …
1988 – Rosina, the rich and beautiful niece of the scheming Dr Bartolo in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville
1989 – Zerlina, the peasant girl who Mozart’s Don Giovanni attempts to seduce on her wedding day
1990 – More Mozart, this time the trouser role of Cherubino at Opera Bastille in The Marriage of Figaro
1991 – a less well-known operatic page, Isolier, in Rossini’s comic opera, Le comte Ory
1996 – Despina in Mozart’s Così fan tutte for her debut at the Met in New York
1997 – title role in Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella)
2012 – Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, the first opera she put on as artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival
Each time she sings a role it’s different, and Norma in Edinburgh will be no exception. With the opera’s setting transposed to occupied Paris during World War II, the production presents Bartoli with new challenges. And audiences will be able to see why it was voted Best New Production of 2013 at the International Opera Awards.
Norma, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, 0131 473 2000, 5, 7, 9 Aug, 7.15pm, £25–£140.