The Idler: Listening to Cecilia

A few encouraging trends in popular music suggest that the ongoing cultural war is not all lost. Thanks to a recent change in the tracking of record sales, for instance, we now know that country music is enormously more popular than was once thought. And country remains almost the only place in popular culture to find occasional expressions of patriotism, filial piety, and simple decency.

The resurgence of big-band jazz—led predominantly by young musicians—is another heartening development. It is an elegant throwback to an earlier and more stable era and appeals to many younger Americans exhausted by the informalism of their own day.

As a Southerner and a former jazz musician, I am delighted that country and big band, are making a comeback. I wish Randy Travis and Harry Connick, Jr., all the best. But for now I am betting on what seems a more significant trend: the growing popularity of opera. More specifically, I am putting all my money on one star.

“You’ve got to hear this,” said my friend when I picked up the telephone one day last spring. As I listened, he moved the handset close to a stereo’s speaker. What followed was astounding female vocal virtuosity, recognizably magnificent even over the telephone. Thus my first encounter with Cecilia Bartoli, an Italian mezzo-soprano whose winning voice and personality have led me to imagine that victory in the cultural war can be ours.

What my friend played for me was the beginning of “Fellon, la pena avrai” (Villain, you shall suffer), an aria from Rossini’s Elizabetta, regina d’Inghilterra. This is what I heard: two staccato, double-octave runs, top to bottom, followed by four more crescendoing cascades of notes, all sung in a voice of commanding strength, in a tone at once warm and brilliant. In short, a perfect operatic voice: expressive and technically matchless.

There are eight other arias in this London-Decca produced Rossini collection, titled “Heroines.” We hear Bartoli as Queen Elizabeth twice. Preceding her imperious “Fellon…” is the more restful “Quant’e grato all’alma mia” (How pleasing to my soul), which features her rich, lower registers.

The collection alternates like that—between thrilling coloratura and pensive lyricism. Indeed, as we learn from Cecilia’s mother in the video, “Cecilia Bartoli: A Portrait,” these are the natural attributes of her voice. A lyric soprano herself and Cecilia’s only teacher, she says that the “filati” (agility) came from her, and the “rotondo” (roundness) from Cecilia’s father, an operatic tenor.

The music in “Heroines” deserves credit, too. Bartoli has shown me that Rossini is hardly an overrated composer. In his February Gramophone review of “Heroines,” Richard Osborne even speculates that Rossini himself might never have heard his music sung so well.

In another London-Decca recital collection, Bartoli has recorded 11 Mozart arias. Here we find her more reserved, her voice still expressively forceful, but her tone smoother and lighter than in “Heroines.” Of course, that is what Mozart requires. The notable thing is Bartoli’s great flexibility.

In her video, Bartoli talks about her music. With Mozart, she says, “I have opened a little door to heaven.” Rossini, on the other hand, is “more earthy… more spicy.” The former is more “legato,” the latter more “defined.” This contrast reflects her own temperament, sublime yet rooted. She says that she aspires “to develop the [vocal] gift that the Eternal Father has given me,” yet then hastens to add, “but eating is important, too!”

Bartoli’s admirable poise may have something do with her training: studying with her mother kept her away from music school and its arrogant professionalism. Whatever the reason, both on- and off-stage, she comes across as a natural. “She has extraordinary self-perception, without the narcissism and the rest of the baloney,” says James Levine, artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera.

This combination of talent and charm has had a predictable effect on Bartoli’s audience. Osborne calls her a “dangerously captivating lady.” As for me and the friend who introduced me to her, soon after first hearing her, we began planning to attend her 1993 U.S. operatic debut—1500 miles away in Houston. Then we heard she was to sing at the Mostly Mozart festival in New York City at the end of August.

Providence smiled: an opera-buff friend, slightly amused at our infatuation, offered to procure tickets.

After four hours on the road, dinner with our charming benefactress, and a 20-minute Rossini Sinfonia, the stage door of Avery Fisher Hall opened and out walked our heroine to sing

Mozart’s “Chi sa, chi sa, quai sia” (I wonder what can be).

I was surprised at first. Bartoli’s voice has been described as “small-sized.” It took a live performance for me to hear this. This is not necessarily bad. As she told one reporter, “I prefer to emphasize qualita rather than quantita.” In any case, she is supposedly working on her “size” and will wait until at least 1995 to debut at the Met.

Bartoli’s voice in “Chi sa,” an aria which has Madama Lucillia fretting over her troubled heart, was properly agitated and soaring, but a bit tense, too. Her next aria, however, “Al desio di chi t’adora” (To the desire of the one who adores you), was relaxed and open; she seemed to have warmed up. Following a Mozart piano concerto, she came back on stage to sing “Nacqui all’affanno… non piu mesta” (Born to sorrow… no longer sadly) from Rossini’s Cenerentola. Then she sang more Rossini. And more, and more.

My quibbles (those of a devoted fan) notwithstanding, Bartoli was a smashing success. The next day in the New York Times, Bernard Holland wrote that she turned the audience into “quivering jelly.” Peter Davis in New York magazine said Bartoli’s Avery Fisher Hall concerts drove the audiences into a “perfect frenzy.”

Holland and Davis were both right. After Bartoli concluded each of her arias, yet before the orchestra had finished the piece in its entirety, the Hall filled with a sort of nervous rumbling, as the audience, buzzing with excitement, vacillated between immediately applauding or waiting the final five or ten seconds to do so.

This sophisticated, though enthusiastic, audience seemed of one mind. “It’s hard to believe,” confessed Davis. “An attractive young artist, heavily hyped by her management, press agents, and record company, is actually the real thing.” Imagine what must happen in Italy when she finishes singing before audiences no less educated in the art than this New York crowd, but much less inhibited!

After she finally left the stage, my friend and I made tracks, too. We skipped the last item on the program and headed for the Green Room. There was already a line of (mostly) men, many of them reporters and musicians. Soon enough, we found ourselves in front of our petite Italian phenomenon.

It was a moment of victory. This post-concert celebration was like a battle won, at least on the level of high culture. The war nonetheless continues.

A page from the New York Times crystallized the matter for me a few months later. There, in the middle of the arts section, accompanying a related story, was a photograph of Madonna, the Italian-American popular music idol, adorned with a black mask and leather whip. Immediately to her left was an illustrated advertisement for three of Cecilia’s CDs and her video.

Given that Madonna’s apparent purpose in life is to attract as much attention to herself as possible, I would rather avoid her entirely. All the same, she remains a useful foil, as Bartoli’s two other recital recordings illustrate. Her latest recording, titled “If You Love Me—Se to m’ami,” is a collection of Italian love songs whose sweetness and poignancy find no equivalent in Madonna’s artistic world.

Even, for instance, if Madonna were able to understand these lyrics from Vivaldi’s “Sposa non disprezzata,” I hesitate to imagine how she would render them in performance:

I am a scorned wife,

faithful, yet insulted.

Heavens, what did I do?

Yet he is my love,

my husband, my beloved,

my hope.

On the other hand, we know what Bartoli does. Her videotaped recital at London’s Savoy Hotel shows her turning these heart-rending lines, over Vivaldi’s measured baroque cadence, into music of exquisite beauty.

The three songs of “La Regata Veneziana” from her “Rossini Recital” collection invite further comparison. These portray Angelina before, during, and after a boat race. First, she challenges her beau, Momolo, to enter the regatta (“Over there the flag is flying…. Bring it back to me this evening or run away and hide”). Next, she exhorts him during the race and, along the way, becomes his inspiration (“Dear boy, he’s almost flying, he’s beating the others hollow… ah, now I understand: he’s seen me!”). Finally, she rewards him for his victory(“Here’s a kiss for you, and another….”). Suffice it to say that this song about “Angelina” and her day at the races reveals more truth about the battle between the sexes than do all of the fantasies of Madonna’s new-found persona, the dominatrix Dita.

Indeed, “La Regata Veneziana” has become one of my favorites. Had I known it when I met Signorina Bartoli backstage at Avery Fisher, I would have quoted from it. As it was, I greeted her with a line from the Cenerentola aria she had just sung: “Figlia, sorella, amica,” (daughter, sister, friend). How much more pleasant to have used instead, “Ciapa un baso, un altro ancora….” (Here’s a kiss for you, and another….)


  • Jonathan B. Tombes

    At the time this article was published, Jonathan B. Tombes was assistant editor of The National Interest.

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