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
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?