David Lister: The Week in Arts

Opera's new phenomenon - diva as bookworm
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The Independent Online

There's something about a diva. Not too many exist at the moment, not at least of the beautiful, larger than life, coquettish, demanding, unpredictable and inspiring sort. And all those adjectives have to be in the job description. There are certainly two around: Angela Gheorghiu and Cecilia Bartoli. Gheorghiu wins my prize for being slightly the more divaesque, but only because she reportedly demanded hair and make-up for a radio interview. That, let's admit it, is class.

Bartoli is, though, just as alluring. I saw her recital this week at the Lucerne Festival. With a low-cut black dress, jewels around her neck so dazzling that it takes several seconds for your eyes to return to normal, and jet-black pony tail swinging as she moves animatedly to her aria, it is hard to take your eyes off the consummate mezzo soprano. Her nostrils flare and she seems to catch each member of the audience in her gaze.

Her record company calls her La Dolce Diva, a phrase that one feels ought to have been used of a star singer before, but seemingly hasn't been. And I'm touched to learn that this dolce diva, who is 40 in a few weeks' time, is still accompanied on the circuit by her mother.

It was hard to imagine a better setting for Bartoli, who also opens their summer festival in August. The relatively new concert hall next to the lake in the Swiss resort is a startling achievement, with not just some of the best acoustics in Europe but some of the best views as well. The massive windows and roof terrace look out across the lake. The concert hall's French architect Jean Nouvel, with the staggering presumption that only an architect can possess, actually wanted to place it on the lake, coolly changing the landscape, but the citizens of Lucerne went to the ballot box to oppose that. Instead, Nouvel literally brought the lake into the concert hall, with two canals flowing into the large foyer. Two of the sponsors fell in at a post-concert party. Indeed, Lucerne is the only concert hall in the world to have a room dedicated to keeping spare clothing for unlucky concert-goers.

Bartoli's recital was about an even weirder danger than falling into the water in a concert hall. It was a recital of arias from banned operas. This must be pleasing for lovers of the art form. Rock songs are banned; plays can be banned; films are censored. But poor old opera lacks the frisson of prohibition. Bartoli, though, has been researching the time in the early 18th century when opera, including work by Handel, was deemed to be dangerous and sinful and was banned by the Pope. All the arias in her current recitals around the world come from these proscribed works.

Bartoli has made an album of the "opera probita" and wore a specially commissioned Vivienne Westwood gown, inspired by the sculptures of Bellini, to launch it. As one does. But Bartoli has brought a new dimension to divadom. Apparently, she has become obsessed with the banned operas, and researches not just the operas but the "substitute operas" of the time, libretti with sacred themes written by cardinals who didn't want the art form to die.

Bartoli has been spending time in libraries in her home city of Rome reading up about it all. The pony tail that swings with abandon on stage is primly tied back in the library. The eyes that flash in concert concentrate in the library on papal edicts.

I don't know whether her mother sits with her in the Rome city library as she does her research. But Bartoli has brought the world of opera a new phenomenon. The diva as bookworm.

Another booking fee rip-off

Few things about ticket prices annoy ticket buyers as much as booking fees. Why are they so high? Why are they per ticket rather than per transaction? But this takes the biscuit.

A press release from the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester says: "Due to the unfortunate news that Gene Pitney [right] sadly died on Wednesday 5 April, the Bridgewater Hall are offering all patrons who have booked for his concert at the Hall on Wednesday 12 April a full refund, excluding booking fees."

Excluding booking fees! The box office manager tells me that booking fees are not refunded because they are an "optional extra".

Concert goers, it seems, could have elected to send in a cheque, but if they use their credit card on the phone (as most of us do) then the venue will not refund the cost of taking the credit card booking. One day someone will explain what exactly is the cost of taking a credit card booking, and why the customers have to pay it even when the man they were booking to see is dead.

* I found a memorable experience in Lucerne, which was nothing to do with the music festival. The Rosengart Collection is an astonishing little museum, full of works by Picasso and many other 20th-century masters.

Seventy-four-year-old Angela Rosengart, the owner, will show you round if you ask. She was a friend of Picasso, and he made six portraits of her. The longest sitting was two and a half hours. At his dinner parties, she says, he was such fun, lively and good humoured. Matisse was a little more serious. Yes, she knew him too, and many of the other artists on display.

Who was her favourite? "Picasso. But I was also very fond of Chagall. He was a dreamer, not really of this world. He was such a butterfly."

It is a stunning collection, but it was hard to look at it and take your eyes off Miss Rosengart in full flow.

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