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
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
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.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes