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
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
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.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink