I’ve had the Decca pressing of Norma starring Cecilia Bartoli for more than a week now. I was going to write a review but when I started to do it something else emerged. The Widder has known Miss Bartoli for a long time and while she will manage a review, this is what showed up on the Computer Screen for this week.
The short lady, she looked like a very buxom teenager, smiled brilliantly at every person she met at the party in
, full of patrons of the arts and taste makers. “How
do you do?” She asked, in a lilting Italian accent, rather heavy but
understandable, “I am a forty eight year old dwarf.” When people looked at her
in shock, she said, “my press people have created me, I am from the circus.
Here is my passport.” She held up her passport. The age reported there was
twenty four. The name was Cecilia Bartoli. Seeing that she was creating
something a sensation, she continued meeting people and giving details of her
life as a middle aged dwarf. “Oh yes, they say at the circus, ‘you know, you
are getting too old-a for the donkeys, but if you smile and bounce, you can say
you are a Rossini mezzo.’” To a billionaire couple and a prissy critic she
said, “to be a dwarf is perfect for Mozart-a, you know. He wrote only for
little people with very small voices who use too much breath in their
fioratura. In the circus they say, ‘Cecilia,.just a-smile and wear tight pants
and wiggle and no one will notice your voice, and just think, you will never
have to – how you say – somersault again.” New York
It wasn’t her first sensation in
but it made quite an impression. Edgar Vincent, a
wonderful man, who was her press agent, caught up with her, grabbed her with a
big smile, took her into a corner and hissed, “they will think you are really
crazy and some of them are dumb enough to believe you.” The young lady looked
around the room, found a man who was fat but not too far gone – yet – it was my
sad Siamese twin whose unpronounceable name can be found on this blog and she
pointed, “he said I should do it!” New York
Edgar, who was very elegant, but could glide with the velocity of a perfectly aimed bullet, headed in my poor twin’s direction, steam coming out of his ears. Miss Bartoli had caught my twin’s eye, both were laughing hysterically. Mr. Vincent was not amused, and though slight of frame, he frog marched my poor brother out of the room with the iron grip of a Marine and, once free of witnesses, screamed at him.
I am not certain it was entirely my twin’s idea, though my twin and Miss Bartoli had spoken uproariously the day before of the circus, and what buxom but short young women might do there. Signora Bartoli, Miss Bartoli’s mother, had been privy to this discussion and appeared to laugh too; my twin, rather a dense sort, alas, didn’t catch the warning glances shooting from her eyes.
This had all come up because Miss XXY, a rival mezzo who was certainly getting excellent reviews and had had (after years of trying) some real successes was also in New York and was telling everybody that this fraud, Cecilia Bartoli, was a forty eight year old dwarf some power mongers who didn’t especially care for Miss XXY, or at least, didn’t care enough to represent her, had dug up from somewhere to fool summer addled New Yorkers, always easy to take in when it came to the arts and if stuck in town, anxious for a sensation. The dwarf’s reclamé was the product of public relations and art politics. Miss XXY, not realizing that my twin knew Miss Bartoli and indeed, her family, had sung her scena for him, inventing some pretty astounding details about the nomadic life of circus dwarfs, mezzos who aspirated coloratura, who had small voices and didn’t trill well.
Though warned not to share this with Miss Bartoli, my twin couldn’t help himself. La Signora wasn’t sure who they were talking about. “Don’t you remember?” Asked Miss Bartoli, “she was my cover in Cosi at Aix. She’s the one who offered me a hundred dollars to get sick the last performance.” “Ah si, si, ricordo,” nodded Signora, “disgraziata!” She spat. Signora Bartoli had indeed had a career as a promising young soprano in the last years of the Second World War and, with her husband, had persisted until it was clear they couldn’t earn enough as soloists to support their children. “Only a fool offers money,” Signora Bartoli had opined that day, “she should have pushed you down stairs.” “Mama!” cried Miss Bartoli. “Don’t worry,” had said Signora Bartoli eyeing her full figured daughter, “you would have bounced and she would have lost face! If you can’t kill someone how do you expect to sing?”
Miss Bartoli had a fairy tale story, which also didn’t endear her to colleagues who had labored much longer in the fields of sorrow and disappointment before getting what breaks they got. Her career had begun like theirs. She’d become an exceptional musician and attended the
. “It helped me with the piano and harmony, as for the
voice, it was one lesson a week with someone who didn’t know what they were
talking about.” Bartoli had learned most of her technique from her mother, from
general common sense principals and then from trial and error. She did begin to
get engagements, but they were small, sporadic and low paying. As usual in
careers, important people would say they were impressed but never be in touch
again. The Bartolis were poor and she needed to earn at least enough to support
herself and help out at home. She was going no where. She wrangled an audition
with Christopher Raeburn, one of the great record producers of Decca, he was
very impressed and agreed to try and arrange an aria recital. But in the
meanwhile, no one was hiring her or worse, even willing to hear her. Academy of Santa Cecilia
(ghost written by the wonder worker, Jack Mastroianni)
(ghost written by the wonder worker, Jack Mastroianni)
Raeburn, in desperation, turned to an old friend of his, the smartest and hardest working American manager, Jack Mastroianni. Jack was then at CAA under the legendary monster Ronald Wilford with a dangerous rival, the vicious phony, Matthew Epstein, who was closer to Wilford. Ironically, one of Jack’s clients was Marilyn Horne, the most famous coloratura mezzo in the world. He was on a quick visit to
and had very little time to meet an
unknown who belonged to a category of singer who was a dime a dozen, a light
Rossini mezzo. With Horne, he hardly needed someone else who sang some of her
roles. Like all agents (managers are glorified agents) Jack had to pull his
weight in terms of billings at CAA, one of the most prominent and ruthless
classical music agencies in the world, from which agents were easily fired. His
job was to sell artists for high fees. Who would hire this unknown in that
world, or for all he knew, at all? Europe
But on his last day in
because Raeburn was a good friend, Jack went to to hear Bartoli. He expected little. At her family’s
apartment in the Monteverde section, she waited in terror. Her agent of record
was the first Mrs. Pavarotti, Adua. She would later be dumped, but get most of
the tenor’s money and holdings (he was broke when he died). Typical of agents
who work with younger artists, Adua had, it seemed, hundreds of clients, and
did very little for any of them. Cecilia knew Adua was a dead end; Jack might
be her last chance. Raeburn, Mastroianni, Cecilia and her mother waited for the
pianist, made small talk, and Jack began looking at his watch less and less
discreetly. So, Cecilia played for herself and sang all kinds of things.
Luckily, Jack adored her, loved the timbre of her voice, was impressed by the
velocity and flair of her florid singing and felt any problems could be ironed
out. Above all he recognized that rarest thing, charisma. When she began to
sing, apparent impossibilities evaporated. After telling her that of course
there could be no guarantees, and stardom was probably merely a dream, he
agreed to represent her. Rome
(the late great Edgar Vincent)
Jack knew he’d have to put himself on the line. He’d built up enormous good will; he was an honest broker and through his illustrious clients at CAA he knew everybody. But the problem with a new talent is finding a way to break him or her through the noise of all that’s going on, in a culture where classical singers were a very hard sell, and a brand name is apt to matter more than what that brand can deliver. He got Edgar Vincent a tape. Edgar loved what he heard. He’d been doing the impossible with classical artists – getting an increasingly small and recalcitrant press interested in covering them -- since the late thirties, knew everybody in the arts press and had an invaluable prestige.
None of these men was naïve; Cecilia could easily be dead in the water. She’d have to make it internationally, she hadn’t really clicked in
and never would, she didn’t have a power base, even a
small one that could promote and pay her while they built on whatever exposure
she got. She didn’t have any champions among celebrity conductors; they’d been
hard to get to. Lacking means she hadn’t been able to fund trips to far flung
auditions and Adua was best at getting her into what in Italy are called “cattle calls”, with dizzying numbers of
other long shots heard by bored functionaries. By taking Bartoli on Vincent,
but especially Mastroianni would be taking big personal risks. Jack was trusted
because when he said someone could deliver he had been right. If he took a hit
from Bartoli it would cost him. America
But she did click internationally. Against the odds, the debut CD for Decca that Raeburn produced -- he forced it through by calling in favors -- sold very well and got great reviews. Cecilia had a tremendous gift for concerts, unlike most opera singers. And Jack knew that while it takes time to get opera houses to book a singer for a leading role, concerts can be much more easily and much more quickly set up. She had an irresistible personality, adored what she was doing, could learn music quickly, had a very sharp instinct for programming (helped by her mother) and in concert halls her voice didn’t seem slight; it was small but not insubstantial, she knew had to “grade” dynamics, so climactic passages rang out, soft passages were easily heard and blandishing, and she had an interesting and even profound grasp of what the words she was singing (always beautifully pronounced) meant.
She was also a great interview, with an infectious sense of humor, good linguistic ability and a tangible charm that came over in print, on TV. It’s not that there weren’t skeptics in those early days, or the occasional dismissive review. It’s that they didn’t matter. People who paid for their seats adored her. She had the one quality you can’t buy or fake: uniqueness. Horne had a bigger voice and a less hedged technique; Von Stade had a beautiful timbre and was irresistible. But Bartoli was Bartoli; no one thought she was imitating them or even influenced by them. And wonderful as those two were, Bartoli’s élan, even a touch of wildness, a willingness to risk, was in some senses a throw back to an earlier era of singers with huge personalities who were laws unto themselves. One could complain about the breathy coloratura, the trill might not happen but she was hard to dislike and impossible to ignore.
She became a big name very quickly, my twin wrote the first big interview with her in
, in Vanity Fair of all places – she’d been hugely
lucky. But for a great career, luck has to keep happening, or ways have to be found
to sustain and build on the early good impression. Many people fizzle quickly. America
Some other memories of Miss Bartoli flash through my poor twin’s mind. The Barber of Seville in
, another big occasion, and Bartoli’s first stage
appearance in Houston . Rosina’s entrance aria, “una voce poca fa” began
well but then the supporting mezzo singing the servant Berta, in jail trustee
uniform, strode on and began wiggling her very large body in time to the music,
“guarding” her charge. The audience roared with laughter at her antics. Bartoli
was drowned out and pushed off form by the unexpected laughter. The other
singers, more stage wise than she, arranged their scenes with her so she was
often in less light than they were; her face was hard to make out. America
There were the usual congratulations afterwards but Jack suggested they all go to a huge amusement part near
the next day. On a dare, Miss Bartoli and my twin
rode a nightmarish roller coaster. She had a good time. My twin threw up. But
over barbeque, my twin, who had had a career in theater talked to Miss Bartoli
about certain things. He suggested she tell the massive Berta that if she did
that again during “una voce poco fa” Miss Bartoli would “get lost” during
Berta’s short aria in the second act and wander on stage, look shocked and
“forget” how to get off stage while the large comprimaria was singing. “Is this
possible?” Asked Miss Bartoli. Houston
So my twin who had been to an illustrious but vicious drama school recounted how a fellow student, an actress who went on to win Oscars and become world famous, had in a certain role pushed the adorable and tall Sigourney Weaver out of the way and shoved my massive twin into a chair and sat on him for a speech she intended to give so as to create a maximum frisson. It wasn’t the first time this beloved icon had kicked my twin, who had an unhappy habit of getting the giggles. (They threw out half the class; my twin, there as a playwright and to study music as far as possible, had been pressed into acting). In the first instance, Miss Weaver and my twin had been screamed at by the entire theater faculty in front of the whole school for being unprofessional and the icon praised for her genius.
As for the lighting issue, Jack was able to arrange for a short rehearsal where the light plot jumped from scene to scene involving Rosina, while my twin showed Cecilia where she could stand to maximize her visibility and how to tell she was in the right place both by eye and by the “feel” of the light on her face. “But when the others try to make me move?” She asked. My twin gave the obvious answer: “shove that person once, and he’ll never do it again.” She was wide eyed after this, but the next performance went much better.
My twin recognized something about Cecilia: she had enormous panache when she felt safe, as she had at that toney party in
uncertain, she seemed a shy, almost frightened little girl. As the youngest but most
famous member of a cast of veterans she was automatically a target. Of course,
my twin told her on another occasion when they discussed tactics, it’s always
best to talk to people when there’s a problem, and singers know there are
people whose permission they should get. BUT
when that doesn’t go well and everything is on the line, sheer assertion must
always be the answer. Many females have a hatchet man (sometimes it’s their
husband) who does the threats ( New
York; de Victoria ’ husband served this purpose but he took all her
money, too, leaving her broke as her voice began to fade). Generally, my twin’s
notion and indeed his experience had been that when they are terrified of you,
you are likelier to get a readier cooperation and aren’t stuck with a middle
man. But this “double nature” suggested to my twin the results of the tough,
unhappy and at times brutal childhood Cecilia had had. This was only alluded
to, and then occasionally and obliquely. Contrary to stereotype, Italians are
very private and there is much that isn’t shared. los Angeles
Other snap shots came to my twin. There was the party for Cecilia to which the joke later known as Mr. 9/11, Rudy Guliani, then mayor of
was to come. It was raining out and she was very
unhappy. My twin and Cecilia took a long walk in the rain. She cried bitterly.
This was during The Marriage of Figaro at the Met, where she was singing
Susanna. She had been attacked in an article in the New York Times. New York
Dr. Jonathan Miller, the director of record, had told the idiot, James Oestreich, that Cecilia had come late for rehearsals. But she and most of the cast had arrived early to be ready to work. Dr. Miller was late. Like all fools and frauds he had talked in an accent borrowed from the Queen of England but had done nothing. According to him, Miss Bartoli had been obstructive. But according to several members of the cast, they had gotten together in rehearsal and privately to work out scenes about which Dr. Miller had no ideas, with Cecilia a cheer leader. Dr. Miller also mocked Miss Bartoli for “insisting” on doing the substitute arias that Mozart had written for Susanna at some performances. But in reality, someone named James Levine had come up with the idea that it would be fun to alternate these arias at a few performances, Bartoli had gone along. Oestreich was too stupid, too ignorant about opera, too impressed with Her Royal Majesty’s accent to check any of the lies Dr. Miller had told. There were plenty of witnesses who would have gladly refuted him. By why should the highly paid Oestreich do his job? Why should the New York Times hire a smart person, rather than an idiot pig (recently laid off with a great package)? Bartoli was desperately hurt.
Well, my twin was puzzled again. He’d had been attacked in the Times and many other papers. He had gone into his profession knowing many people who had been viciously treated by inferior fools. There’s nothing to be done about it; from somewhere has to come the hardness to salve whatever hurt results and go on. Cecilia, by then a big star, again seemed vulnerable. My twin pointed out that at least she was having a success with the audiences and that had to be her comfort.
She and my twin talked about death. Her older brother was dying horribly of cancer, leaving a family behind. She had spent an enormous amount of money trying to save him. He had encouraged her, taught her (he was a musician too) and been a protector of the family in some very hard times. She asked what music she might sing. My twin recommended Ich habe genug by Bach, a cantata of leave taking and hope in something better. They listened to the recording by Hans Hotter. And then had tried it at the piano – Cecilia had a reasonable command of German. She lasted only a few measures before fleeing.
There had been a few seconds of naked grief, but it was never mentioned again. Cecilia was older and becoming tougher. She was facing some career realities. Though she loved doing concerts, her taste was inclining more and more to the Baroque and Classical, not the expected repertoire and most thought not commercial. She didn’t feel all the Rossini roles suited her and she felt her voice was too small for some roles, her personality wrong for others. Of course, everyone suggested Carmen; Abbado wanted her to do the Composer in Ariadne auf
Naxos. But though she could function in German she didn’t feel
comfortable about an entire role. She felt remote from Carmen. She hadn’t been
that happy doing La Cenerentola at the Met; it had gone well but she felt as
though her personality hadn’t had the impact for which she had hoped.
She loved the idea of doing La Traviata. When in the mood she would sing “Sempre libera” in key, sometimes with high E flat. One needed only to hear her try a few measures of “Addio dal passato” to understand what she could bring to the role. But by this time the furies had been unleashed on the Internet, in small publications and she was subject to vicious attack (not as pornographic as those launched on another gifted woman, Renee Fleming). “They would crucify me,” she said.
Pavarotti had gotten interested in her. They made records of the “Chiedi al’ aura” duet from L’Elisir d’amore and interestingly, the “Cherry Duet” from L’Amico Fritz. (I am not sure but think the Fritz duet never circulated). He wanted to do one of those operas, or perhaps something similar, at least in the recording studio. But again, she wasn’t sure she wouldn’t be exposing herself to maximum attack for minimal gain.
A conductor she liked very much, the great Nicholas Harnoncourt had become obsessed with doing Aida as it had been done at its world premiere in
. Apparently there were big differences in the
orchestration; the tuning had been verifiably low as well. He thought Bartoli
should be his Aida. Certainly in a recording studio at the lower tuning, she
could have done the role, bringing dusky erotic warmth, a Latinate quality that
had largely disappeared from the world as fewer Italians emerged to sing these
iconic roles. But Bartoli turned him down finally, and eventually he recorded
the standard version with the vast Vienna Philharmonic and a very light voiced
soprano as Aida (with the other singers typical for their roles). Egypt
In this frustrating period, Bartoli began to move away from the conventional model of representation. She was less interested in playing ball with a powerful manager and she got tougher as a negotiator. Few of the big Italian conductors had been willing to help her when she needed some promotion, and she was icily unsentimental about affronting them. She was capable of outmaneuvering commanders of the baton in pressured situations -- to protect herself, she said -- but to stick it them as well. In general she grew much less trusting; she wasn’t exactly paranoid but she knew that in the business there are plenty of people who will give you a big hug with a knife hidden in one hand, happy to plunge it in your back as they kissed you on both cheeks.
After about 2001 much would change; she would go her own way, facing prophecies of disaster. She reinvented herself; tours of Baroque arias with a period ensemble looked like sure losers but concerts sold out and CDs were improbable classical best sellers. She sang murderously difficult music, much of it unheard for centuries. She displayed a huge range and sometimes incredible velocity. Her use of “aspiration” in florid music (audible breaths) was complained of, though it was more evident sometimes than others. On the Internet and sometimes in print she was attacked mostly by ignorant fools who never detected the fake outs of their idols and simply made up calumnies. But the excitement, even hysteria she could create in audiences hardened her to what was unfair, and she also made peace with the technique she had developed and its limits. To witness these concerts live was thrilling, and she never failed to deliver her own sense of excitement in and love of this old music. She had done a lot of the scholarly work herself, discovering scores, looking at ornaments as written down by star singers or their pupils. She loved working as an equal with the small group of musicians (though she was also the boss!).
She became more courageous about approaching roles that had been usurped by high sopranos noting that Maria Malibran, the legendary if short lived icon of the bel canto era had apparently been what we’d call a mezzo soprano (a term that only gradually came into use) and had sung all the high roles including Amina in Bellini’s Sonnambula and Norma. She studied Malibran’s scores and read everything she could find that described her sound – dark and complex. She also studied the scores of another great prima donna, Giudetta Pasta, the creator of Norma, who also had had apparently a dark, low set voice. The rigid conventions of the late 20th century with assumptions made by people who didn’t take these operas seriously anyway appeared arguable at least, and very likely, wrong. There were always the idiots who didn’t read music, knew nothing of history, lacked any artistic sophistication, the opera fools, queens with mother problems who had cathected to "Zinka", always sharp, a joke in florid music, ignorant of the deeper meanings of the text and terrible at pronouncing it or to their own myth of the strange Maria Callas, locked into the gross distortions of these operas, cut and rearranged, as they were given in the fifties and sixties. This had nothing to do with Norma or La Sonnambula or indeed, much of anything, but the psychosis was accepted as a badge of honor. A great critic like the late Charles Rosen could shock a reader by seeing and describing the genius in Bellini, who had after all been a huge influence on many of the “great” composers of his own time and even later, ranging from Chopin to Richard Wagner (“long, long, long melodies such as no one before had written".). But the moronic reviewers who should have been janitors or killed at birth,
Oestreich repeated stale, ignorant
clichés. school of
Some years later she would make a complete
recording of La Sonnambula and now she has recorded Norma. Next time the
widder will consider those recordings.
Bartoli had grown from that high spirited, sometimes uncertain girl to a mature artist who felt called to rediscover these and other operas, easily dismissed, always distorted and she decided to do it through scholarship, hard work, will and risk.
This ambition too was seen as foolish, even delusional. But two experiences of Bartoli suggested that maybe she could pull it off.
One was the Fiordaligi she sang in
in 2000. Her
performances of this difficult, long and wide ranging role were astonishing.
The house is small and she made it the basis for most of her stage
performances. In the Cosi fan tutte,
conducted by Harnoncourt she had sung the role with abandon, emotional
fullness, musical insight and a kind of profundity. Her voice sounded beautiful
live and she had no trouble with the extremes of the role. She had the humor
for the opera seria send up of Come scoglio in act one; but in act
two, the more difficult Per pieta was sung with endless
longing, need, a desire to be loved that was devastating. Fiordaligi’s dilemma,
perhaps not entirely serious, self contradictory, became for that aria as she
sang it, the dilemma of all humans who long for love but can’t understand where
to find it, how to achieve it. The audience wouldn’t breathe during her
performance, and then would erupt in an explosion – not only of enthusiasm for
her – but of shared understanding. Zurich
But perhaps more relevant to Norma was a performance I saw in
in the late 90’s of Amina’s opening scene from La Sonnambula. She hoped
to sing the opera and it was to be mounted for her at the Met. The tenor was to
be Ramon Vargas. She knew it was a big risk but she was willing to take it. But
Vargas had a terrible personal tragedy and withdrew. The Met cast an unknown
tenor who Bartoli had never heard and she withdrew, perhaps forever from staged
opera in London . America
“Sovra al sen” conducted by Neville Marriner had been a test. It was a revelation. I have a CD made live and it is on You tube; it
remains breathtaking. London
She had gone back to the autograph and she had projected her voice into a big hall. In recitative, slow section and contrasting fast section she had worked hard to project a young girl, on the eve of her marriage to the man she loves. Amina was a simple, almost childlike being, naïve, “romantic” and in that fast section ecstatic. In the slow “Sovra al sen” she had sung the way one might have played Chopin. Marriner followed her perfectly as she used an agogic (rhythmic) technique to bring the melody to life. Now, she would be slightly ahead of the beat, then, slightly behind; she used a perfectly judged but apparently spontaneous rubato – deliberately staying behind for this phrase and then, subtly catching up. She felt the shape of the melody fully. What sounds a very pretty tune usually, became exquisitely, shockingly, strangely beautiful; the eagerness, the sudden shyness, the touch of fear of a simple girl was all there in the way Bellini had lovingly shaped his melody on the words. It was an endless instant, opera itself, in the way an entire personality, endearing, vulnerable, at risk was exposed. Then, in the fast section there had been a wild abandon achieved without sacrificing the elegance the style requires. The shock of this music, apparently simple and to the opera lovers present surely over familiar, was something new, and the audience exploded at the end into an enormous, prolonged, stamping ovation. Bartoli had captured the magic of music that had once enchanted the world, and which had been something new, for Bellini was inventing romanticism, taking a risk, just as Cecilia Bartoli was.