Showing posts with label Cecilia Bartoli. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cecilia Bartoli. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Meet Cecilia Bartoli, opera's Renaissance woman

My interview with Cecilia Bartoli at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival appeared in the i yesterday. They don't put everything online, so here it is, below the picture.


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




Saturday, May 21, 2016

Several Marias, reimagined...

Last Sunday I got up at 4am to travel to Stansted Airport on the far north-east opposite end of not-really-London, thence to fly on our beloved institution of Ryanair to a wet, chilly, Sunday-sleepy Austrian town full of images of its most famous son, one WA Mozart, to meet one of the world's most famous mezzo-sopranos and hear her sing the role of Maria in West Side Story (different from that august town's more usual Maria, on the Sound of Music hillsides), accompanied by the Simon Bolivár Orchestra and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel: a dazzling show, full of verve and passion, all about "juvenile delinquency" in 1950s New York, attended chiefly by those who could afford tickets that make Glyndebourne look a snip at £300 (top price for Meistersinger).

Cecilia Bartoli as Maria 1 © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

A long sentence, that. Nevertheless, there's something magic about Cecilia Bartoli. Every time she began to sing I found myself in tears, and not only because I was knackered. It's possible to pick holes, if you want to: her vibrato is large and fast, she was performing the role from the sidelines as Maria's older self (Bartoli is 50 this year, Maria is 16) looking back at her memories while a younger actress played 'Maria 2' and a certain amount of disbelief had to be suspended, not least because Tony - the otherwise excellent tenor Norman Reinhardt - was not similarly doubled and looked more like Maria 2's dad. Bartoli was therefore obliged to sing duets and ensemble numbers from far-distant parts of George Tsypin's vast, multilevel set and it is much to her credit and Dudamel's that this was pulled off with seamless ensemble. In the end, she has a knack for letting her sound strike us straight in the gut, as if her entire heart is given in the voice, and it grabs and twists you and wrings you out, no matter what your mind says. If you go to this show, do not wear mascara.

Predictably the whole thing has been panned elsewhere, but musically that judgment would seem unfair. Yes, it's miked. It's a musical; it's supposed to be miked. Someone complained that the words were unintelligible, but I could hear everything clear as day; the New York 1950s street-speak, though, is more than a little dated and may seem as Martian to today's youth as the 2016 equivalent does to those who share a ball-park vintage with Maria 1. Meanwhile, all plaudits to the magnificent Karen Olivo as a smoky-voiced Anita, electric physicality from the boys in striking new choreography by Liam Steel, and the Sharks girls who nearly stole the whole show with their sizzling "America".

The company on stage. © Salzburger Festspiele / Silvia Lelli

Above all, the white-hot orchestra was the star of the day - they can probably play that "Mambo" standing on their heads by now, as it's become almost a signature piece for them, but Bernstein's score deserves luxury treatment (one can't help cringing when hearing it delivered by a tiny pit band in West End standard mode): drafting them in was one of Bartoli's most inspired ideas. She is the artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival - a short, Maytime relation of the giant summer shebang - and for Shakespeare anniversary year she filled it with works inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Incidentally, Norman Reinhardt is not related to Max Reinhardt, the summer festival's founder.

Verdict: moved to tears despite a flawed concept. But what's the real problem with that concept?

The director Philip Wm. McKinley came up with the notion of two Marias after wondering what becomes of Maria after the show ends. Unlike Shakespeare's Juliet, she does not die, but delivers a blistering speech over Tony's body that proves the futility of this cycle of violence that has taught her how to hate. Unfortunately, according to this reimagining, what happened next is that she went on working in the wedding dress shop, became its manager, never married, never stopped missing Tony - and now throws herself under a train, after which her soul and his are reunited in the Felsenreitschüle stratospheres.

Oh, come on! Maria is way too clever and spirited for that. Has she learned nothing from losing Tony? Of course she has. She has learned that hatred is terrible and life is short. Instead of mouldering away, would she not be spurred to devote herself to stopping the violence she could not prevent as a young girl?

She mourns Tony, of course. But let's remember, she's only known him for two days. She saves hard, works nights and sets up a youth support centre on the Upper West Side. She goes into gangland and recruits those affected by violence and trains them to work with their own communities to stop the killing. She cares for the frightened, lost youngsters as she would for her own children. She has quite a voice, and she learns how to inspire people with the power of her orations. She galvanises New York with her charisma and determination. She is elected mayor of New York City. And then she becomes the first woman president of the USA, long before Hillary Clinton. "Somewhere" can become her great, idealistic, political anthem. "We'll find a new way of living" is her campaign slogan.

That would be our Maria. That could be our Cecilia, if she were given a chance.

Bartoli interview to follow in due course.

Monday, September 10, 2012

When music meets story

Ahh, what it is to be a pioneer. A few years ago, Philippe and I bust all our gut strings on the Hungarian Dances project: a novel (mine) about 80 years of cross-currents between Gypsy and classical violin playing, with a CD (his) created specifically, though separately, to match. It was, to the best of our knowledge, the first time that a classical CD had been recorded to partner a contemporary novel (most others were just compilations of pre-existing tracks).

Fortunately, in a few short years, we've had the advent of mass downloads: it's a lot simpler to do this kind of thing now. And it seems we were indeed pioneers. Now they're hitting the shelves thick and fast. I was a tad intrigued when Jodi Picoult (who had the same editor at the same publishing house as I did, btw) put out a CD of country music to accompany her novel Sing You Home. Then there was the business of 50 Shades of Grey and Sperm - oops - Spem in Alium...

But Cecilia Bartoli is going a step further: she has long been the Cleopatra of the concept album and her new disc, Mission, has a new historical mystery novel to be its companion piece, written specially for the purpose, by Donna Leon. Classy. Get a load of this:




Thursday, August 30, 2012

Salzburg: I am a Festspielhave




I'm just back from the Salzburg Festival, where I heard more amazing singers within 72 hours than you'd believe possible. Three very different operas from three different centuries, each focused on war, actual or between the sexes - usually both. My review-proper will be in Opera Now magazine. In the meantime, here's a little taste of the trip.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten proved perhaps opera's most devastating experience: an all-out tour-de-force, assaulting senses and emotions alike. Good to see TV cameras there last Sunday, as this production is a great achievement that requires preservation on film; nothing, though, can really capture the impact of experiencing it live, from a seat almost beneath the largest of several outsize tam-tams. This opera musters every last shred of force available to an orchestra, a cast, a lead soprano (the magnificent Laura Aikin), a conductor (heroic Ingo Metzmacher) and the human ear itself to get across its message: the horrors that these military men foist upon the hapless Marie, and the failure of a variety of parents to prevent it. The composer took his own life in 1970. Books on Zimmermann are in short supply, and there seems to be nothing in English, but Alex Ross provides some valuable insights here.

Other question-marks hang over Carmen. Updated to Franco's Spain, it starred Magdalena Kozena as a red-haired firebrand partnered first of all by her husband, Sir Simon Rattle, in the pit, and secondly by Jonas Kaufmann, whose Don Jose was a puzzling matter possibly determined by directorial decisions rather than tenorial ones.

Finally, Handel's Giulio Cesare, with Andreas Scholl as Julius, Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra, Anne Sofie von Otter Cornelia and Philippe Jaroussky Sesto. These people know how to Handel you. A perturbing moment towards the end when one reckoned that the Salzburg Festival and all those great singers should know better than to put drinks on a piano. But otherwise...these guys and GFH together moved me to tears several times - Cornelia's first aria, the duet for her and Sesto, Cleo's 'Piangerai' - and left me at the end of five hours almost ready to beg for more. Gulp.

Inside the venues: phenomenal music-making, imaginative productions (some more than others) and world-class performances. The setting: mountain scenery, evening dresses, outsize jewellery, facelifts, sponsors' parties, pre-show drinkies choice of Moet on one side of the road or Taittinger on the other.

And the Festspielhave? In case you haven't seen all this before, the Festspielhaus bears Roman-style lettering above the door, declaring it the 'Festspielhavs'. This is where the Festspielhaves go in. The promenade of the audience around the champagne stalls often attracts onlookers. Those are the Festspielhavenots.

Pretentious though it may look, it's not all snob value. On my second and third evenings my neighbours were enthusiasts who were there on their own purely for love of music and interest in theatre. One was a retired lady from west of Paris, the other a mechanic from the Salzkammergut. And there is kindness aboard, too. Exiting Die Soldaten, I was brolliless in a downpour that put Salzburg's famous Schnurlregen to shame. A Californian lady festival-goer spotted me and offered to share her umbrella across the bridge. That's never happened en route to Waterloo Station. (Below: the view of the Castle from the interval crowd outside the Felsenreitschule. The dog is a Festspielhavenot.)

The atmosphere has changed a little since my last visit, some 20 years ago. Back then, almost every shop window bore a poster showing one or more of the musical stars visiting the town. The buses carried advertisements proudly welcoming Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman to Salzburg. The record shops were full to busting. Today? The sides of the buses plug designer outlets and free parking. I only spotted one record shop in town, and it specialised in world music. Zimerman's recital had been cancelled due to illness (Leif Ove Andsnes replaced him). Sponsor logos are plastered everywhere - gone are the graceful days of discretion in philanthropy (though it's nice of Nestle to provide Kit-Kats for the journalists in the media centre). And a gaping division is all too evident between the down-at-heel atmosphere on the outskirts of town and around the station, and the dripping-with-gold-and-designer-shops historic centre. The one thing that hasn't changed is the number of tourists and the amount of Mozartkugeln on sale.

A more welcome addition is a big screen in the Domplatz that relayed Die Soldaten live on Sunday, and on other evenings showed film of operas from festivals gone by. And I may have missed a trick by not taking the Sound of Music tour bus - apparently you all sing 'Doe, a Deer' and there's a quiz to win a packet of Edelweiss seeds. But the way time panned out, it was a choice of that or a jog along the river, and the latter won. Had to burn off some of that chocolate.

Check the November issue of Opera Now for my detailed review of the three performances.


Saturday, November 24, 2007

And now for something completely different: Cecilia and Maria

Cecilia Bartoli has just brought out a fabulous new CD of music written for and by the legendary 19th-century diva Maria Malibran, Pauline Viardot's big sister and an inspiration to Bellini, Rossini and Mendelssohn, amongst others.

I went to Paris a few weeks back to meet her in her Malibran Bus - a converted lorry in which her ample collection of Malibran memorabilia is on display. It was parked on the Place de la Sorbonne, causing double-takes all round, and it's coming to London with her in December, when she has two concerts at the Barbican (both already sold out!). Here's my article from The Independent a few days ago. I think it ran on Wednesday. I regret to say that I was so busy with the 'Heliane' talk preparations that I hadn't even realised it had come out.

The disc is wonderfully accompanied by a Swiss period-instrument ensemble, La Scintilla, which brings a whole new colour to the bel canto world - it's like watching by candlelight. There's plenty of Bellini and Pacini, but also marvellous virtuoso numbers by Malibran and her father; and for me, the highlight of the disc is a substantial Mendelssohn concert aria 'Infelice', written for Malibran and her second husband, the violinist Charles de Beriot. Bartoli has drafted in Maxim Vengerov to play the solo. It's a masterpiece.

I first read about 'Infelice' a couple of years ago when I was researching Viardot for the St Nazaire 2006 project, and tried to track it down for the show. In the end we dropped the idea since it was rather tangential and much too long for the Viardot/Turgenev story - we already had way too much stuff. But I was sad not to see or hear it. What a treat to discover it on this disc, in the best possible hands.

Another interesting concept: you can get the CD and its associated printed matter in a standard edition, or a deluxe hardback edition, or a superdeluxe version with DVD thrown in for good measure.

Here's a video about it:

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

PAULINE VIARDOT: ESSENTIAL LISTENING

If you haven't yet sampled the enchanting songs of Pauline Viardot - or even if you have - just try these gems from Cecilia Bartoli, accompanied by Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Nuff said.

'HAI LULI'



'HAVANAISE'