Now 30 years old, Bartoli made her operatic debut at the age of nine, playing the shepherd boy in a performance of Puccini's Tosca in Rome; but its over the past 10 years that she has established herself as one of the outstanding singers of our time. Unusually for a female operatic superstar, she is a mezzo-soprano rather than a higher-flying soprano. And, where most divas might be expected to cover everything from Mozart to Strauss, with all the changes in style and scale which that implies, Bartoli has stuck to a handful of mostly comic roles in Mozart and Rossini. In the process, she has won a vast audience worldwide: her Mozart Portraits recital album has sold more than 200,000 copies.
At a time when new opera recordings are undertaken with the utmost caution, it's a measure of Bartoli's status with her record company (Decca) that her enthusiasm for Haydn's rarely heard Orphic opera was enough to ensure a recording as a personal showcase. It could be a wise career move. There are critics who suggest that it's time she went beyond Mozart and Rossini. And then there are those dissenters who insist that her voice is too small, that it's a voice for the recording studio, not the opera house. In this country she has appeared at the Wigmore Hall, the intimacy of which suits the voice and the personality; but she has not yet been seen in an opera house. A promised Covent Garden debut in 1992 failed to materialise; and last month she was due to appear at Glyndebourne in a benefit concert for the London Philharmonic, but cancelled at the last minute because of a cold - colds and cancellations appear to be a recurring problem.
Yet she has appeared in European opera houses of every size, and in February made her debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, a vast cavern seating 4,000 - much larger than any opera house over here. Even the battle-hardened critic of Opera magazine was moved: "Bartoli is a great artist, very musical and lots of fun on stage, and she's welcome to do anything she wants." She herself says, with some pride, "My Met debut was good. I waited for years before appearing there: they had asked me to sing Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, but I saw the production and it was not so interesting, so I decided to wait for something different. Despina in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte is a wonderful part for me: with a mezzo-soprano voice, she has a tougher, stronger character, and that I like. The Met is such a huge theatre but it has a wonderful acoustic, and it was a lesson: I realised that it's wrong to try and push to make the voice bigger. It's a strange place, not really right for 18th-century opera. I tried to persuade the Met to find another theatre, perhaps on Broadway, that would be a better size, and now they're looking for somewhere for the future."
The British conductor Christopher Hogwood has made two recordings with Bartoli: Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, and now L'anima del filosofo, both with his Academy of Ancient Music, an orchestra playing 18th-century instruments with a sound less grandiloquent than conventional opera house orchestras. He, for one, is grateful for the Bartoli voice: "She has all the techniques that you ask of a singer in repertoire of that period: she has the trills, she has good coloratura, a fine dramatic sense and an extraordinary range, which is very useful. Many of the roles in opera before the classical period would have been written for castrati, male parts that are a bit of alto, a bit of soprano. Cecilia has that range, and she has full control of it, and of the colours up and down the range. She's also careful about what language she sings in. She understands that the words often lead the music. It's great fun to work with her. Not only is she enormously inside the role that she is delivering, but she's also full of proposals and suggestions for the drama, and very helpful to non- Italians in matters of the language."
Nor does Hogwood have much time for those who complain about the size of Bartoli's voice: "Because of its richness, and the way it records, people imagine they're going to get a bigger voice, but Cecilia is sensible about not forcing it. I think Kathleen Battle, for example, has exactly the same problem: these are not mega voices to fill these unnaturally large opera houses. It's unfair to criticise them for being small. One should rather say that, in the face of many talented singers nowadays, many opera houses are just too big. Not everybody wants to blow their voices to smithereens producing a Wagnerian sound, although many singers, tempted by bigger bucks, bigger houses, do inflate the voice and end up with nothing special: but they earn Met fees. In the process, one may have lost a lovely Mozart voice. I hope Cecilia won't do that. More and more when we've spoken recently, it's to discuss baroque repertoire: Vivaldi, Handel, Monteverdi. She has a very clear idea of what's needed in that repertoire, and where she fits."
In the past couple of decades, the period instrument movement, in which Hogwood is so prominent a figure, has spawned a generation of voices tailored to fit what period performance practice demands. Bartoli is pleased to play her part, but doesn't want to restrict herself: "I love the old instruments, I feel there's a lovely fusion between them and my voice. The pitch is lower, the colours are richer, there is more velvet and more drama. But could I become a specialist singer with old instruments? I'm afraid of the word `specialist'. It's too constricting. I don't want to be catalogued. To specialise in 18th-century music is one thing, but I don't know about specialising in old instruments."
Her latest CD, Chant d'amour, marks a significant expansion of her repertoire. It's a collection of French songs by Bizet, Delibes, Berlioz, Ravel (her first recorded encounter with 20th-century music) and, a real trouvaille, three songs by Pauline Viardot. Viardot is one of the 19th century's most intriguing figures. She was a great singer (and sister of the even greater Maria Malibran). Although Berlioz once called her a "diva manquee", he was later smitten by her talents, vocal and otherwise, and prepared an edition of Gluck's Orphee et Eurydice especially so that she could take the role of Orpheus (a future part for Bartoli?). She studied piano with Liszt; was good friends with George Sand; maintained a long relationship with Turgenev (mournfully recalled in his play A Month in the Country); and composed four operettas, a grand opera and numerous songs. Bartoli feels a sisterly excitement about recording her work: "Viardot is a terrific composer, but her music is very rare, so it's wonderful to have the chance to discover it. Her songs have a great sensuality, French music with a Spanish aroma. In her Havanaise, which is partly in French, partly in Spanish, you really feel that you're on a beach in southern Spain."
In fact, there is a Mediterranean feel to the whole collection, and Bartoli displays an unexpected affinity for composers previously outside her repertoire. By turn the songs are melancholy, coquettish, slapstick and sensuous, each displaying a different facet of the singer's expressive range. The CD opens with five songs by Bizet. Mention Bizet, and thoughts immediately turn to Carmen. We're used to fire-breathing, chest-beating, man-eating mezzos in the part, but Bartoli has clearly thought about the role and has ideas that would make her an intriguing Carmen.
Contrary to popular opinion, she suggests, "It's not an opera for a big theatre, nor for a big orchestra. It's an opera comique: I see it more like an 18th-century opera than in a big arena. But it's certainly not something I'm focusing on at the moment. I'm more interested in singing Monteverdi's Poppea one day. That appeals more. It's not that I don't like Carmen, but there is still plenty of time for that."
There was a time when Bartoli delighted in presenting herself as flighty and flirty, tearing round the Italian countryside in fast cars, determined to be a breath of fresh air in the stuffy atmosphere of classical super- stardom. Perhaps the leather-and-lace period of her career is behind her now. She hasn't lost her infectious joie de vivre, and you certainly don't become that fine a singer without real hard work - although having a mother and father in the business may help - but now there's a sense of an extra seriousness of purpose, an eagerness to break new ground, to refine her craft and art. The best of Bartoli is yet to come. All we need is for some British opera house to book her in. Any takers?
n Cecilia Bartoli's new album, `Chant d'amour', with Myung-Whun Chung on piano, is released on 14 October (Decca 452 667-2); the recording of `L'anima del filosofo' will appear next SpringReuse content