The Bald Soprano
Mission is the latest “project”– also known as a CD– from Cecilia Bartoli. I have so many quibbles that you may think I’m not endorsing it, but that’s not so. It’s actually quite a charming CD. The discovery of Agostino Steffani (1654 – 1728) as a “missing link” between Cavalli and Handel is interesting, and the recording itself is very well-produced and performed. Bartoli is working with the notable group I barocchisti under Diego Fasolis and even duets beautifully a couple of times with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. There is no doubting the commitment and skill of the performers on every band, or their efforts to make the style “authentic”. With the CD we also get a fascinating mini-book about Steffani’s life that is very informative—not only about his music, but about his travels around Europe as a Church diplomat.
And that is precisely where my quibbles begin. Weirdly, the lengthy booklet doesn’t do enough. I ‘d like to know an awful lot more about the individual operas, their contemporary impact, their range and variety of approaches. Are there any great ones? Are there any “missing links”we should be reviving? And there’s more: some remarkably unattractive photos of Bartoli dressed (in costume, I suppose) as Agostino Steffani! One could justify this on the grounds that she’s playing the musical priest himself—but she looks more like someone about to launch a new Inquisition than try on trouser roles. Was Steffani really that scary? In that case, how did he manage his diplomatic career? As for the bald look (I hopeit was CGI effects and that Bartoli didn’t actually shave her head for the gig), it’s really not for her. In fact, the whole booklet gives the impression of something over-cooked and of someone extremely dour and worthy.
Some of the selections from the operas are quite lively, and Bartoli’s singing is impeccable. I also have no problem with the fact that, like many a mezzo, she’s singing music originally written for castrati. I don’t even mind hugely that her portrayals are not very differentiated and she’s just singing the roles (however pleasantly), rather than playing them. However, her singing itself seems mannered in a way that reminds me of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s (in the later part of her career), to mask her vocal and breathing problems. I also felt that some of the singing verged on crooning into a microphone and had little to do with projecting the voice when singing live in an opera house.
The whole thing made me wish that this discovery and this recording had been made by Marilyn Horne in her prime. There is none of that sheer, gutsy pleasure that Horne conveyed so effortlessly in the music she sang; or of the nuances of emotion she also conveyed along with that pleasure. Horne somehow made you care about her castrato heroes (even while she was slightly sending up the whole convention) and always gloried energetically in the drama as well as the music. It was a supreme balancing act. For me, Bartoli’s approach makes it all seem simply rather worthy and a bit of an exercise. This recording is interesting, informative, evocative at times, full of information and some very nice music indeed, both compositions and performances. But ultimately it feels more like a seminar in early Baroque music than like fun.
I am, nevertheless, really glad to have the disc and to play it regularly. I just wish I didn’t have to look at that mug shot on the cover of Bartoli as a bald prima donna in clerical drag sticking her crucifix in my face as if she were warding off vampires or heretics.
Decca 478 4732 Mission. Cecilia Bartoli,
I barocchisti/Diego Fasolis