|Cecilia Bartoli as Maria 1. © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli
It is almost impossible not to love Cecilia Bartoli: the Italian mezzo-soprano is a singer with a magic edge. The voice, like the woman, has immense personality: a technicolour range, a distinctive timbre simultaneously bright and mellow, and a way of expressing emotion so direct that it can melt any heart in one phrase.
This summer she sings two very different roles: Maria in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Salzburg Festival, and Bellini’s bel canto classic Norma at the Edinburgh Festival, a production originally from Salzburg. The latter, directed by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, has been a triumph internationally, resetting the action in the Second World War. West Side Story, however, drags Salzburg itself into the present day. Bartoli, as artistic director of the city’s long-weekend Whitsun Festival, has brought Mozart’s home town its first taste of this 20th-century classic live on stage.
Bartoli arrives in a business suit the morning after the show, long hair scraped back: she is in directorial mode, her conversation as lively and warm as her singing. This is a big year for her. She has just turned 50 and, having held the Whitsun Festival post for five years, she has now signed up for another five.
It is relatively unusual for an opera star to become artistic director of such a festival; even rarer for a female one. Bartoli agrees that it’s still a man’s world. “When they asked me to become artistic director I was astonished,” she says. “My predecessor was Maestro Riccardo Muti. It was always a man, and a conductor. I said to them, ‘Are you sure you want a woman?’ Also I’m younger, a new generation compared to the others.”
In Salzburg, 50 is the new 25. Bartoli laughs aside her big birthday: “I still feel as I did ten years ago,” she says. Born in Rome into a family of singers, she has already enjoyed 30 years on stage, progressing with remarkable consistency since her debut at 19 through a wholesome diet of baroque, classical and bel canto roles. Her recording career, though, is notable for fascinating projects – concept albums, if you like: strong programmes presented with upmarket artistic integrity and eye-catching glamour, transforming music as unlikely as Russian baroque or the repertoire of the 19th-century mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran into significant successes.
West Side Story is her first foray into any form of “crossover” – though it fulfils what she declares is a long-held dream of singing Maria. The production, directed by Philip Wm. McKinley, is now a centrepiece for this year’s summer festival, where Bartoli hopes it will have a somewhat rejuvenating effect.
“When we announced West Side Story for Whitsun, we sold the tickets in one week,” she beams, undaunted by a few iffy reviews. “For summer it is sold out too. There’s a new audience coming to Salzburg for it, and this is what we want! People from musicals will come, and people from opera, and this fusion is in the piece already.
“What is West Side Story?” she muses. “It’s a musical, but not a musical; it’s an opera, but not an opera. Leonard Bernstein wanted operatic singers for his recording: Tony was sung by José Carreras and Maria by Kiri te Kanawa. The roles need solid singers with solid technique who can sustain the high registers without screaming.” That is especially needed with the energetic Simón Bolivár Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, flaming away in the pit.
In the production two Marias take the stage: Bartoli sings from the sidelines as the older Maria looking back on her first love when she was 16. Maria 1 sings; Maria 2 does the action and the dancing. On stage throughout, Bartoli has the presence and the emotional all-givingness to pull off the tricky presentation and ensemble work; the bigger challenge, she says, was singing with a microphone. “I never had this experience before,” she admits. “You have to play much more with colour, with nuances and with the words. It’s not a question of projection – it’s more about how to be delicate.” There was no question of not using a mic, she adds: “West Side Story was conceived like this from the beginning; it was always done with amplification.”
In contrast, Bellini’s Norma, which she is bringing to Edinburgh, is a masterpiece of subtle, bel canto writing. It was one of Maria Callas’s signature roles – her searing soprano a very different timbre from Bartoli’s mezzo. Usually Norma is a soprano and Adalgisa, for whom Norma’s lover leaves her, is the mezzo. Dramatically, Bartoli points out, Adalgisa should probably be the younger woman. “But in many castings Adalgisa sounds older than Norma, and in many cases she’s also older in the passport.”
“This Norma is special because we have a period-instrument orchestra and try to recreate the cast that Bellini had for his premiere,” she explains. Bellini’s first Norma, in 1831, was Giuditta Pasta: “Many of her roles are today considered repertoire for mezzo-soprano,” Bartoli says. “I thought maybe we have to reconsider the role of Norma and try to present what Bellini composed, without any influence from the later 19th century. Bellini is closer to Mozart than to Puccini and his singers’ background would have involved Rossini, Mozart and Handel."
“I hope we will now start a new era of performing bel canto opera with period instruments. It’s a real dialogue between the stage and the pit. Today often you have an orchestra of 100 people playing full out and you’re alone on stage trying to fight this...”
Bartoli has never had much trouble doing so. Her style makes up in detail and projection for anything she may lack in heft, and she has paced herself so carefully that she has avoided the physical and vocal problems that sometimes beset others. “This is the boss,” she smiles, tapping her voicebox. And looking further into the future, ten years at the helm of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival would qualify her for bigger artistic directorships, should she so wish. “I know how demanding that would be,” she reflects. “Maybe I’ll open a restaurant!”
Cecilia Bartoli sings Norma at the Edinburgh Festival, 5-9 August: http://www.eif.co.uk . West Side Story is at the Salzburg Festival 20-29 August: http://www.salzburgerfestspiele.at