Cecilia Bartoli: Bringing operas back to life

The Vatican once banned opera as immoral. Cecilia Bartoli has resurrected some of the lost works. The diva tells Jessica Duchen why

For the launch, in a Baroque church at the edge of the Roman Forum, of Cecilia Bartoli's latest CD, Opera Probita ("Banned Opera"), the charismatic Italian mezzo-soprano has been labelled "la dolce diva" by her record company. The singer is resplendent in a specially commissioned Vivienne Westwood gown of pewter-hued silk, inspired by the sensuous sculptures of Bernini. As she sings Alessandro Scarlatti's "L'alta Roma, reina del mondo" ("Noble Rome, queen of the world"), two massive doors behind the platform swing open into the warm night, revealing a floodlit landscape of pillars more than 2,000 years old. For an hour, accompanied by Les Musiciens du Louvre under the direction of the French conductor Marc Minkowski, Bartoli treats her guests to a programme of arias by Handel, Caldara and Scarlatti.

Opera Probita is probably Bartoli's most original and exciting recording to date. It is, in effect, a multi-layered concept album, mingling the music of Baroque Rome with some deliciously sophisticated ambiguity. It's a complex cocktail of forbidden fruit, in which sensual music is masked as sacred, matched in presentation by tongue-in-cheek imagery inspired by Fellini's La Dolce Vita. The album has gone straight to No 1 in the US classical charts and is Recording of the Month in Gramophone. Bartoli is bringing its repertoire to London, with a performance at the Barbican on 7 December.

The evening in Rome proves unforgettable. Opera is in Bartoli's blood. Born in the city, she was virtually raised in the Teatro dell'Opera, where her parents both sang in the chorus. "I must have started listening to musicians while I was still in my mother's uterus," Bartoli declares, gazing out over the Forum. "I grew up with the great operas of Verdi and Puccini, in which my parents used to sing. But I then had to take a different repertoire, because I had to follow my voice, my instrument."

Bartoli's warm, supple, honeyed voice carried her first to 19th-century Italian bel canto roles that demand precision, focus and beauty, rather than volume of sound. She has always kept Rossini operas at the heart of her work: earlier this year she thrilled audiences at Covent Garden in Il Turco in Italia, a fabulous production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier that updated the action to the era of the films of Pasolini and Fellini, complete with an authentic Vespa and a well-timed takeaway pizza. "It was a wonderful experience and the audience enjoyed the production so much that every performance felt like a kind of feast!" Bartoli exclaims.

But while others with a voice as gorgeous as Bartoli's might be expected to dive from stage to stage, you're more likely to find her in a university library, hunting out rare Baroque gems. Her ambitions extend not forwards to Puccini, but backwards to the ground-breaking Renaissance works of Monteverdi. "I would love to sing Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea," she says, "as well as more Handel operatic roles, like Alcina or Agrippina."

What about every mezzo's ultimate operatic prize: Bizet's Carmen? "Interestingly, the Opéra Comique in Paris, where this opera was first staged, is rather small, with a tiny orchestra pit," Bartoli says, a gleam in her eye. "The first production of Carmen must have been created for this kind of atmosphere, with real intimacy. We're used to seeing Carmen as a big, spectacular show. So a Carmen back to the source, yes. Back to Bizet! Otherwise, no."

Bartoli's journey into the past began when the conductor Daniel Barenboim suggested she should consider singing Mozart roles such as Dorabella in Così fan tutte and Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro. "He opened me to the universe of Mozart and classicism," Bartoli recounts. Since then, she's also worked extensively with conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Christopher Hogwood, accompanied by orchestras of period instruments. She's a tremendous enthusiast for "early music". "I think that we singers have an old instrument," she explains. While musical instruments changed dramatically over the 19th and 20th centuries, the human voice has remained the human voice. She points to the difference in tone between old-style gut strings and modern metal ones on a violin. "We didn't have that kind of development! The voice still sounds more like gut strings."

Opera Probita began with Handel. "He brought me back to Rome," Bartoli enthuses. "What we see in the Forum today is exactly what Handel saw when he arrived here, aged only about 21. Imagine the effect on him, coming from the north of Germany! I'm sure he was totally impressed; there's a sense of astonishment in his music." Her mission was initially to explore the music of the young Handel and his contemporaries in Rome, but soon the heat was on. "We found some incredible music, but also an incredible story: the story of prohibition. This was the era during which opera was banned by the Vatican, because it was considered immoral, especially the stories being portrayed on stage. But some of the cardinals who loved opera began to write their own libretti with sacred, biblical or allegorical themes." These oratorios therefore became a substitute for opera, with music that is distinctly operatic in nature, "full of drama, passion and a real sense of theatre".

A further prohibition was that women were forbidden to perform on stage. Hence the rise of the "castrati", male sopranos whose vocal timbre was famously achieved by a painful operation at puberty. The greatest castrati were revered as performers and many of the astonishingly athletic arias in Bartoli's Opera Probita were composed for them. Bartoli is effectively singing arias for male singers portraying female characters. "Technically, it's very demanding," she adds. "You never know if you can manage, as a woman, to sing this music which is so virtuosic. Sometimes you have to sustain a long line to the end of a phrase, but the phrases were extremely long to suit men's greater oxygen capacity."

Where does La Dolce Vita come into it? "When it was released in the Sixties, it was considered immoral and anti-Catholic, so it was a little like what happened at the beginning of the 18th century with theatre and opera. Also, there's a big scene with Anita Ekberg having a good time in the Trevi Fountain, and another where she walks through the 17th-century streets of Trastevere with a little cat. These are very Baroque visions! So we have the parallel of prohibition, we have the Baroque vision more in the modern direction but keeping the Baroque element, and Ekberg herself is a Baroque figure - a voluptuous, sensual woman like the sculptures of Bernini."

And the pictures in Bartoli's album, portraying her ecstatic and abandoned against surging Roman fountains, weren't snapped in the Fontana di Trevi itself, were they? "Ah," Bartoli jokes, "if the temperature is still 28 degrees in the afternoon and there's no police around..." The image is striking. Is this the sensual world of Bernini's fountain, or a symbolic flood of divine grace? Hear Bartoli sing and they become one and the same.

Cecilia Bartoli performs at the Barbican, London SE1 (020-7638 8891) on 7 December; 'Opera Probita' is out now on Decca

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot