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Fast Chat: Cecilia Bartoli
2005 Newsday interview

by Marion Lignana Rosenberg

There is sunshine in her speaking voice, and those huge brown eyes really do sparkle: Cecilia Bartoli in person is every bit as captivating as she seems on stage. Local audiences know her best as an operatic comedian: as the feisty maid Despina in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, her 1996 Metropolitan Opera stage debut; as Rossini’s Cinderella; and as a bubbly Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. But beneath that mirthful exterior lurks a formidable intellect, which emerges when Bartoli talks about her new CD, Opera Proibita (“Forbidden Opera”), a collection of arias by Handel, Scarlatti and Caldara.

Bartoli will perform selections from Opera Proibita with the Zurich Opera’s Orchestra La Scintilla at Carnegie Hall Oct. 19. Before starting her North American tour, she stopped off for coffee and conversation at a swish New York salon with Newsday contributor Marion Lignana Rosenberg.

Where did you get the idea for Opera Proibita?

In Zurich, I did a staged performance of Handel’s oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (“The Triumph of Time and Enlightenment”). The music captured my imagination, and the libretto, too—it’s incredibly beautiful, this allegory written by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili. I was intrigued, and my research led me to Rome.

Tell me about early 18th century Rome.

It was a fascinating time because the Vatican had decided that the theater was an immoral place, so authorities banned opera and prohibited women from singing on public stages. But there were cardinals like Pamphili and Pietro Ottoboni who loved opera, so they began writing librettos based on allegorical and biblical subjects. Composers set these sacred texts to music, and performances took place in private palazzos.

Some performances apparently took place on stage, with scenery.

Yes, we even have sketches for Handel’s La Resurrezione. All of this struck me, because it tells a story about Rome, my city. It was wonderful to make a recording where all the composers worked in Rome but each breathed in a different energy: Caldara, with his love for polyphony; Scarlatti, influenced by popular song; and Handel, a Protestant, who was nonetheless profoundly shaped by the language of baroque Rome.

What are the arias like?

They’re sacred arias—but full of energy, sensuality, passion. It’s a strange thing!

From time to time, composers themselves have condemned florid music as corrupt and frivolous. As a virtuoso singer, you obviously see things differently.

Vocal ornaments can’t be ends in themselves—they have to express something. But I recall that when Farinelli was accused of being too much of a virtuoso, he started singing only slow arias—showing off other forms of virtuosity!

Why did you choose a cover image inspired by Fellini’s film La dolce vita?

I needed to present this project in a modern way while maintaining a baroque sensibility. In La dolce vita, Anita Ekberg is in the Fountain of Trevi, a baroque fountain. Her body is sinuous, sensual: She could have been a model for Bernini. The Vatican condemned La Dolce Vita as an immoral film—censorship again, 250 years after Handel! The words “Forbidden Opera” are stamped across my body, a woman’s body, because women weren’t allowed to sing. And water…

…water is a basic element of baroque art.

Exactly. And in the end, water is like art: It can’t be stopped.

Religious fundamentalism is on the rise in our times. Yet, your CD shows that censorship rarely works.

Censorship can spur creativity because people look for ways to get around it. At other times, though, censorship only creates terrible problems.

You haven’t sung at the Met since 1998. Will you be back soon?

I’ve met with Peter Gelb, the incoming general manager, and we’re talking about the 2008 season.

Some critics say that your repertoire is too limited and arcane.

My response is that audiences love this music, even young audiences who come to my concerts and buy millions of recordings. Vivaldi, Gluck—their works are jewels! Whoever can’t feel this is a limited person.

What will be your focus in coming years: opera, concerts, chamber music?

Everything! I’d like to perform Monteverdi and Renaissance music, but also go back to Romantic works. I’ve never stopped singing Rossini. Having Rossini in your repertoire means that your voice stays agile and flexible. And I’m not against modern music, though nowadays composers tend to write without consideration for singers—unlike old-time composers, who tried to show specific voices to their best advantage.

Tell me, did you really jump into the Fountain of Trevi for the CD cover shoot?

I’ll leave that to your imagination!

As a Roman, you’ve surely been tempted on sticky summer days…

When the police aren’t looking, you can always take a chance. But this is forbidden, too!

The last time we spoke, you said that you had resolved to do less in order to do better. Is this still your philosophy?

Absolutely. The more you protect your private life, the happier you are and the more you can give as an artist. But you have to work hard to get to this point.

contact me : colophon