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Diva Fever: Cecilia Bartoli celebrates
an illustrious forebear on Maria
2007 Time Out New York Feature

by Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Irony of fate: Cecilia Bartoli’s voice in the theater or concert hall is surely one of the most beautiful sounds to be heard. Yet for North American audiences, Bartoli is primarily a recording artist. New Yorkers have not heard her in opera since 1998 (Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Met), and her local appearances in concert and recital have grown increasingly rare. Instead, most of us hear Bartoli on her famously close-miked CDs, which underscore her every aspirate, gurgle and shifting of vocal gears.

The feeling of examining, say, a Caravaggio under a microscope is ever present when listening to Bartoli’s breathy, resolutely small-scale performances of arias from Bellini’s La sonnambula, I Puritani and Norma on her new tribute album, Maria. The Maria in question is not Callas, who died 30 years ago in September, but Maria Malibran, the eccentric 19th-century diva who packed several lifetimes’ worth of music and adventures into her 28 years. (Sacha Guitry made a film on Malibran’s life, and Werner Schroeter made one on her death—starring drag queen Candy Darling, made famous by Andy Warhol and Lou Reed.) Maria includes music that was performed or written by Malibran, ranging from faux yodeling to some of opera’s most exalted arias.

For all that Callas defines early-19th-century Italian opera for most listeners, she and her midcentury-modernist contemporaries hardly undertook the research and radical questioning of performance tradition that inform Maria. Bartoli’s chamber-scale “Casta diva” from Norma has drawn ridicule from some, mindful of the more heroic sound of Callas, Joan Sutherland and others. Reached by phone in Paris, the normally easygoing Bartoli reacts with an edge in her voice.

“The work we did for this recording involved autograph scores—the autograph of Norma is in Rome, at the library of the conservatory,” she explains. “‘Casta diva’ is a prayer, and the dynamic markings are piano, pianissimo, sotto voce. And since Norma is by Mr. Bellini and not by ‘the tradition,’ I—as an interpreter, as the composer’s servant—simply recorded this aria with a period orchestra and the dynamics that Bellini wrote in his music.”

Bartoli has a point. In the diaphanous playing of Zurich’s Orchestra La Scintilla and the ever-shifting luster and shadings of her voice, one can hear the moonlight and the numinous shimmerings of the forest evoked in Norma’s prayer to the moon goddess. Would Bartoli ever consider singing the role onstage? “It would have to be a Norma not tied to ‘tradition,’ but to the autograph score,” she says. “The orchestras that played in Bellini’s day consisted of 40, 45 musicians. It would be a bel canto Norma—not, let us say, a Wagnerian Norma!” she proclaims with a laugh.

The merchandising for Maria includes a coffee-table book showing Bartoli in high-concept shots, including one in which she lovingly cradles Malibran’s death mask. “The death mask allows us to see her face. The portraits of the era were quite idealized. This is a way of showing how much research we did for the project.”

Accompanying Bartoli on her La Rivoluzione Romantica concert tour of Europe is a mobile museum: an RV displaying the singer’s extensive collection of Malibran memorabilia, including letters, portraits and playbills. While some European critics have complained of a media circus around the caravan, musicologist Philip Gossett, the world’s leading expert on 19th-century Italian opera, is impressed. “This ‘truck’ Bartoli has set up with the Malibran material is as good an exhibit as any public institution could hope to organize,” he says. “No singer—as far as I know—has ever done anything like this.”

“I wanted to give people in different countries a chance to see these items, in the spirit of travel—because Malibran too traveled constantly, throughout Europe and in North America,” Bartoli says. Asked whether that spirit might occasion a possible return to North America, the homebody Bartoli admits that she has no upcoming commitments at the Met or elsewhere in the States. “I’ve reduced my workload so that I can do research and study,” she says. “But I would like to return—with the mobile museum!” Like her 19th-century sister in song, Bartoli forges her own path.

Maria is out now.

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