Everyone's talking about Cecilia Bartoli

Cecilia Bartoli

Decca/ © Uli Weber

This theatrical Italian mezzo-soprano is famous for her vocal fireworks and a knack for rediscovering some pretty obscure byways of the classical repertoire. She's singing music from her new album, Mission, at the Barbican, London, on 15 November as part of her European tour. Here's the low-down on what to expect.

What's the buzz?

She has a new CD out called Mission, a collection of pieces by the little-known Baroque composer Agostino Steffani (1654-1728). She's singing it at the Barbican, London on 15 November, part of a European tour.

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Cecilia Bartoli Biography
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So?

It's big because it's her first recording of early Baroque repertoire and it features her first collaboration with star French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky,

A bit specialist then?

No way. Bartoli's penchant for attention-grabbing multimedia extras has reached epic proportions.

Who is she?

World-class mezzo-soprano. Born in Rome, 1966. Has sold 10 million CDs, spent more than 100 weeks in the international pop charts rankings, and won numerous awards including five Grammys and two Classic Brits. Plus she has achieved all this without turning to the 'crossover' market.

What's her secret?

Well, there's her rich, agile, acrobatic voice and her formidable command of coloratura repertoire: she can trill, run, leap to the dizziest vocal heights in the music of Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart, Rossini and others you've never heard of - or hadn't before she unearthed them: right now, Steffani.

Tell us more...

Early on she made the savvy decision to focus her career on rediscovering forgotten repertoire and composers. Consequently every album she releases is like nothing else on the market. This year her quest to discover forgotten classical music earned her the Herbert von Karajan Music Prize.

Downside?

Not many. She's witty, vivacious, good looking, highly theatrical. But not everyone's enamoured. Some can't take her facial expressions: Norman Lebrecht refers to her as 'eyebrows of the year' on his website.

How about her track record?

She's determined. Her last album, Sacrificium (2009), which won four awards in France alone, was devoted to repertoire originally written for castrati - male singers castrated before puberty to keep their voices unbroken.

She's not the first to take this castrato stuff on, surely?

It featured an amazing 11 world-premiere recordings, included a bonus CD of further repertoire, and came in hardback booklet form featuring a 100-page, castrato-themed dictionary. Now that's what you call enthusiasm.

Why bother with Steffani?

He's a bit of a mystery character. Possibly a spy, as well as a priest, composer and castrato singer.

So, cue a press campaign, promotional film and album cover?

You bet, maxing out on film-noir-esque shots of Bartoli made up alternately as a bald 17th-century priest (above) and a 40s-style detective, and 'webisodes' in which fans can hunt for clues in return for early access to the music.

Any extras? Steffani the App?

Funny you should ask. Mission will be issued as a hardback book filled with historical information. New media techniques will be exploited with webisodes and an iPad App. In addition the international author Donna Leon has written an accompanying mystery novel, The Jewels of Paradise, due to be released simultaneously with the album in English, German, French, Dutch, Spanish and Catalan.

The essential Bartoli:

Back in 1999 Bartoli was ploughing a new musical furrow when she recorded an album of Vivaldi's operatic arias. Here she is performing 'Agitata da due venti' in Venice, showing off her extraordinary vocal ability.

 

Bartoli's second album in 1996, Chant d'amour, was of 19th-century French repertoire. One of its treasures was the rediscovery of a forgotten female composer, Pauline Viardot. Listen to the yearning beauty of 'Hai luli'.

 

Lest we forget, Bartoli isn't all about the obscure. Here she is singing 'Non piu mesta' Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella) at New York's Metropolitan Opera:

 

The Met dressed her pretty sensibly there, but Bartoli likes to have fun in the costume department. Here she is singing Riccardo Broschi's 'Son qual nave' from her 2009 album Sacrificium:

 

Equally dramatic, but particularly personal for Bartoli, was her 2007 album, Maria, devoted to the life and repertoire of one of her heroines, the 19th-century Spanish mezzo-soprano, Maria Malibran.

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