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A Soprano Ready to Conquer

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Cecilia Bartoli tours the U.S. with a reevaluation of Salieri

“This is definitely unbelievab­le,” exclaims the 37-year-old mezzo via telephone from Salzburg. “The success of the album is very surprising, not only in Europe but also the United States. Salieri is definitely a new composer for the United States. I’m so looking forward to performing his music there.”

After singing a concert of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s music with the Vienna Philharmonic and Nicholas Harnoncourt, one of the main draws at Salzburg’s weeklong Mozart Festival, Bartoli now embarks on a U.S. tour. Beginning in Los Angeles on February 8, the singer will present a mixed repertoire recital with pianist Sergio Ciomei in San Diego, Berkeley, and Chicago. She then heads East to perform Salieri with The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the period orchestra with which she recorded her album. Engagements in Ann Arbor, Washington D.C., and New York culminate with a Boston concert on February 27.

Speaking with an ardor usually reserved for teenagers experiencing love’s first blush, Bartoli unstintingly praises Salieri’s music.

“I believe in the power of his music,” she said. “He was not only a great composer; he was also a fantastic teacher. He taught Beethoven and Schubert and was the bridge between the Classic and Romantic periods. I really believe that people can hear the quality in the music.”

For many of us, the notion of following Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with Antonio Salieri seems sacrilegious. I confess that I’ve hated Salieri ever since he was depicted in the movie “Amadeus” as a second-rate composer who may have been responsible for Mozart’s early death.

“All of us hated the man,” Bartoli said. “What’s strange is that after 20 years, people still believe that this was the real character of Salieri, which is not true. Once they hear his music, people realize that Salieri is not the man we saw in the ‘Amadeus’ movie. That man had no talent. It was a great movie, but the Salieri character was a big fiction [laughing loudly].

“What surprised me recently was an October article in England’s Guardian newspaper that discussed the Salieri of ‘Amadeus.’ I didn’t know that for the movie they had to change the music of Salieri to make it sound more banal. The composer who manipulated the music wasn’t happy with the result, and thought no one would believe it was really the music of Salieri. When I saw that, I thought it couldn’t be possible [giggling].”

That sort of incredulity characterizes many people’s first reaction to Bartoli’s singing. I initially heard her perform live in Berkeley in 1991, when she was in her early 20s. What struck me the most, besides the breathtaking beauty of her voice and her incredibly animated presence, was the life she gave to well-worn showpieces. A case in point was Rossini’s “La Regatta Veneziana,” a three-part scena in which the singer cheers on her lover who has entered a boat race.

Bartoli seemed bigger than Rossini’s music, her imagination exceeding Rossini’s melodic limitations. It was as though we were looking at a frame, whose borders Bartoli was constantly reaching beyond to take us to places that Rossini’s melodies had only hinted at.

Similar thoughts of Bartoli’s mastery arose at a recent Vivaldi concert by the lauded German Early Music Ensemble. As one of early music’s much-valued sopranos sang Vivaldi’s depictions of love, jealousy, anger, pain, and revenge with little variation in tone color and emotion, I could not help but imagine what Bartoli could do with the same music.

“It’s the music that supports you and tells you what to do,” insisted Bartoli. “It tells you how to fill the notes. You don’t have to be shy about feeling the music when you’re singing. If you believe in music––the power of music––the music will support you and take you to another dimension. But you must believe it. Otherwise it will never work.”

Bartoli has been working on her voice since her first lessons with her mother––who is still her teacher––at age 15. At 19, while still a Conservatory student, she entered a televised singing competition for singers under 20. Although she didn’t take the opportunity seriously, the beautiful young woman’s rendition of an aria from “Carmen” captivated viewers.

“It was an interesting experience,” Bartoli recalled. “I was seen on TV, and the reaction after the show was quite extraordinary. People called me for concerts, and agents contacted me. This was something I didn’t really expect.”

Between the ages of 23 and 25, Bartoli’s vocal and interpretive capabilities increased dramatically. Before long, she was venturing into soprano repertoire.

“Due to studying and experience, the range was becoming bigger and bigger,” she said. “This is something that must take time. The voice is an instrument that you really must take time to develop. It’s like a good red wine [laughing]. Give it time. Yes.

“That I had a good teacher made all the difference. A good teacher will teach you the technique, but also how to listen to your voice, because the voice is also the guide. The voice will guide you, will tell you what to do. In order to do that, you must be quite sensitive with the instrument and accept this daily conversation with your voice.

“The goal is always to make a nice tableau painting with the voice. The more color I can find, the more shadow I can find––the goal is always to make more nuance and colors.”

Bartoli’s recital program with pianist Sergio Ciomei spices bel canto Italian songs of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti with what she terms “some little surprises.” Among these are songs of Bizet, a French peer of Rossini, and Pauline Viardot.

“It’s nice to have a great female composer in the program. It’s great to add her color. Viardot was the sister of Maria Malibran for whom Rossini composed much music. He and Bellini were big admirers of Malibran and all the family. Their father Manuel Garcia was the first tenor who sang the Barber in Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville.’”

Bartoli’s major Handel recording to date, of “Rinaldo,” airs her with openly gay countertenor David Daniels. Does she have plans to perform with Daniels in the future?

“Oh, I would love to,” Bartoli said. “I’ll tell you why. I have such a great souvenir of our ‘Rinaldo.’ The recording was preceded by a tour in which we performed a concert version. The two voices matched so well together I couldn’t believe it! It was the first time I sang with David Daniels. I had never performed with a countertenor before. That first time was magic, it was so beautiful. And he’s such a great artist.”

Bartoli constantly interacts with the lesbians and gay men who animate the world of opera and early music. When asked her thoughts about our community, she speaks with characteristic candor.

“I have found such a great musicality and sensitivity for music among gays and lesbians. It’s great. Music is a way to dream together and go to another dimension. There’s a letter of Salieri saying ‘Music is a divine imitation of nature.’”

Thoughts turn to current events and global unrest.

“Actually, I feel music becoming more and more important,” Bartoli says. “It’s a big source of inspiration. With what’s going on in the world, we feel almost desperate. Music also brings you peace.”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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