Cecilia Bartoli: The singing pioneer

Cecilia Bartoli is a mezzo-soprano of acknowledged brilliance but, as Roderic Dunnett discovers, she is also a passionate champion of the arias of Mozart's rival Antonio Salieri
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The Independent Culture

The last time I last heard Cecilia Bartoli live was in Istanbul. Still without doubt one of the most astonishing coloratura vocalists around today, the Roman-born mezzo-soprano and bel canto specialist was initially scheduled to appear at the Emperor Justinian's former cathedral of Hagia Sophia, whose towering walls and mighty boom might have overwhelmed her. Instead, her festival recital took place in the exquisite sixth century Irene Church, close up to the walls of Topkapi, which provided a glorious and exotic setting for her mixed programme of Italian arias and French song, delivered with the usual Bartoli smiling panache.

Tonight Cecilia Bartoli brings her latest programme of Salieri arias to the Barbican Hall. To judge by her recent Decca release of thirteen vivid opera extracts by the same composer, it promises to be a feast of storm-tossed, high-flying vocal technique, tinged - if she can muster it, amid the fireworks - with moments of that special Bartoli poignancy too.

True, Bartoli - purest of all pure voices - seems in danger occasionally of "overegging" her delivery, with her skylark-like trilling, frenetic antics and almost too polished caricature. Yet her musical stature, and intelligence are undisputed : she is nobody's fool, and she remains, quite simply, a perfectionist: one of the best of the best.

On her recent discs of Gluck and Vivaldi, Cecilia Bartoli has proved something of a pioneer. So far from trading on known potboilers, this thinking performer has explored rare repertoire in the form of virtually unknown arias from each of these composers' operas, bringing rare kudos, whacking great sales and a new sense of raison d'être to her record company, Decca. Equally, in the opera house, it is not just established roles such as Cinderella, Dorabella and Despina, but her championing of unusual Haydn - not least with period conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with whom she sang Armida in February this year in Zurich - that gives her appearances a special cachet.

Bartoli's latest passion, Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) court composer and later Hofkapellmeister to the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II in Vienna, was immortalised by Paul Scofield on stage and F Murray Abraham on film as the murderer - or imagined slayer - of his cackling younger rival, Mozart. It's ironic that top billing for villainy should have heralded, at last, the rediscovery of the music of this hitherto virtually unknown composer.

Fresh back from her frantic European tour - embracing Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Ireland, Bartoli is an ever-popular visitor to the UK. She began her tour promoting Salieri in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall during October, and is rounding it off in style with a Christmas celebration at London's Barbican Hall.

Pausing - after a packed-out appearance at the Royal Opera House - at London's Savoy Hotel, and ensconced on a comfortable sofa in the lounge, Bartoli waxes lyrical and articulate about her new-found admiration for Salieri.

"After I'd recorded Gluck, Salieri seemed absolutely the logical and natural next step to take. Even on hearing Saleri's youthful operas [circa 1770], Gluck, the creator of a whole new genre of opera, came to regard Salieri as his natural successor. Salieri handles his characters with such sensitivity and wisdom. He has a real feel for human psychology and insight into character." One of his masterpieces, Tarare, was written (with Beaumarchais) for Paris, and performed there in 1787, just five months before Gluck died while his Falstaff predates Verdi's by a century.

Bartoli wanted the concerts and new Decca recording, "to show something of this extraordinary, brilliant range of Salieri's output. What's important, indeed exciting too," she explains, "is that because so little of his music is available in published form, we had to go back to the manuscripts in the Vienna archive - many of which are covered with Salieri's modifications, additions and improvements, made in later life.

"It was difficult to know what to leave out, there was so much of obvious quality in Salieri - enough for many recordings. But I made a final selection for the disc after my colleague Claudio Osele, who has worked wonders with creating the performing editions, and I pored over countless examples from his operas, spanning every period. As far as we could, we went for his last thoughts, incorporating many of the changes he made on the manuscripts.

"One of the most striking things about Salieri is that he looks both ways. While he excelled at the outset of his career as a youthful writer of opera seria, harking back directly to Handel and the Baroque, he lived long enough - and had the temperament - to anticipate the Romantic movement much more than Mozart's did. By the time Salieri was revising his operas as an old man, he'd seen not just the rise and fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, but the tempestuous rise of Rossini too.

"My present favourite is one of those early arias, a wonderful example of what he could achieve, even as a young composer. It's taken from Armida, only his fourth completed opera - it dates originally from early in 1772 - and is an immensely mature, four-section, double recitative and aria written for Rinaldo, who is overwhelmed by his love for Armida. The emotions are so real and so varied and he handles his material with such amazing clarity and simplicity. In such music, one truly encounters the spirit of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, composed just a decade earlier.

"There's another aria from a few years later, it begins "Ah sia gia", and comes from La Scuola di Gelosia (1778). Here is a Countess, who seems to breathe much the same air as Mozart's Countess in Figaro, yet she's ten years earlier. Salieri depicted women so well, so sensitively - this aria embraces every imaginable emotion, from racking jealousy (of her rival, Ernestina) and bitterness to happier memories of past days spent together, and a belief her husband will return.

"Many of Salieri's later revisions have to do with improving the orchestration, often by the addition of a new instrument or obbligato. In Palmira, for instance, he makes wonderful use of the clarinet. He had a wonderful comic feel too - whether in the mock-nightmare effects of Il Ricco d'un Giorno or the bustling horns and woodwind that accompany the maid Lisotta's racy, coquettish aria in La Cifra about the kind of husband she's after - an aria full of outrageous noises depicting the instruments she would like, or not like, at her wedding.

Salieri's librettist for La Cifra (1789), was none other than Lorenzo da Ponte, whom we tend to think of as "Mozart's librettist". "What we so easily forget," says Bartoli, "is that it was Salieri who brought Da Ponte to Vienna in the first place; without Salieri, arguably there would have been no Mozart/ Da Ponte trilogy. And remember, too, that Salieri was the one who actually worked with [Pietreo] Metastasio, from whom he took lessons in declamation and text-setting, which he was able to pass on at first hand to his pupils - who included just about anyone who was anyone in the early 19th Century. So I think it's really fair to say that Salieri, probably more than any composer, was the true bridge between the Classical Enlightenment and the Romantic eras."

Cecilia Bartoli sings Salieri with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Barbican Hall, tonight at 7.30 (0845 120 7550). The Salieri Album is released on Decca 475 100-2