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The Unique Joy of Cecilia Bartoli

© Monika Rittershaus / Salzburger Festspiele

Well, I said that I would be writing about Cecilia Bartoli, so here I am this week to deliver on that promise.

Before you click away thinking the Opera Offstage blog has been hijacked by a Cecilia Bartoli stan account (as fun as that would be), this post isn’t just about our favorite Baroque and bel canto specialist and all-around operatic icon. Rather, it's a celebration of how her unadulterated joy for music has found its way into my life at surprising and critical moments.

Most artists have singers we constantly return to. Perhaps we believe them to be the epitome of what an operatic star or certain voice type/fach should be, or maybe they specialize in the particular kinds of music we enjoy most. We always go to their recordings first, watch weird bootlegs or broadcasts of their performances, and even take inspiration from them dramatically or musically in our own careers.

Personally, I often gravitate towards singers with excellent technical prowess as something to aspire to. But I also gravitate towards artists that make me feel something. That is, after all, at some level one of the very basic goals of musical drama — to tell a story, to be heard and understood.

Rare is it that I come across artists that I feel excel in both categories. Cecilia Bartoli is certainly one of them, and it is perhaps what her performances make me feel that I find the most valuable.

I was a freshman at my undergraduate university when I first experienced Bartoli and she couldn't have come at a moreapt time. I knew that I loved music, but I was lost.

I didn’t know what direction I wanted to take my degree. I had failed to be selected for our university’s opera program in Germany the next summer, my voice teacher at the time was on sabbatical, my stand-in voice teacher was away from school in a production, and I was grappling with a sense of disillusionment with my degree over that same teacher discouraging me from learning more musical theatre pieces (what I had mostly performed up to that point).

I didn’t know if I should be pursuing voice anymore and needed a night to reflect. As so often is the case when I brood, I ended up on YouTube searching pieces I was working on and trying to get a better grasp of what it meant to perform art song and arias.

A few minutes later, through the YouTube rabbit hole she appeared. It was THE VIDEO. You know the one — that grainy Facebook or YouTube algorithm will sometimes dredge up from time to time. Agitata da due venti.

Cecilia Bartoli - Agitata Da Due Venti From "La Griselda" (Vivaldi)

Until then, I had only been peripherally aware of Bartoli and had maybe heard her on some Met Opera recordings of La Cenerentola. “Agitata” blew me away. I didn’t know humans could sing like that. I had never seen someone give themselves to music so completely, yet still remain in control. Nor had I ever seen anyone characterize a piece so expressively and with such conviction. What stunned me most was how she took the opportunity to wring some meaning and dramatic weight out of every single minuscule note.

Needless to say, I couldn’t get enough. Someone out there loved music in a way that I needed to relate to at that time, and often still do today. It may sound crazy, but her authentic joy for music helped me to realize that my own joy and my own love for the art were not contingent on what other people were doing, or whatever failures (real or perceived) I had encountered to that point. It’s a lot to glean from a Vivaldi aria, but Bartoli is what made it special.

In the following years, I would often return to Bartoli’s recordings and performances for comfort and inspiration. I frequently find her interpretation and vocal timbre lends a glimmer of hope, or at least a drop of bittersweetness to even the most melancholy of arias. Even in a piece as seemingly simple as “Amarilli mia bella,” Bartoli explores nearly every different dynamic of a grief process — disbelief, anger, bargaining, despair, and resolution in the space of less than four minutes, and often simply on the repeated text of Amarilli’s name. Still, she never wallows.

At the very least, Bartoli comprehends and empathizes with human emotion at an incredibly high level, and is able to infuse that earnestness of understanding into her performances. Her diverse range of projects from obscure Baroque music, to dazzling Rossini operas, to heading the artistic direction of the Salzburger Festspiele, and duetting with Andrea Bocelli seems to indicate that not only do others crave her artistic touch, but that she is a well-rounded artist dedicated to understanding and drawing from a plurality of human experiences.

To end this post, I thought I’d share the most recent and pertinent way in which Cecilia Bartoli lifted my spirits. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the spring of 2020 with quarantine and stay-at-home mandates commonplace worldwide and families separated for important holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day, Bartoli took to Twitter with a series of videos of her singing at the piano. The videos aren’t complex or very long, and often feature a bouquet of flowers along with a seasonal greeting, a simple, “Have a good Monday,” or even admission that the piano is out of tune. But when Bartoli smiles and sits down to play and sing, everything melts away for a moment and she seems to sing to you directly. The effect is utterly comforting, endearing, and brings a flicker of familiarity, hope, and of course, joy to those who desperately need it.

Have other artists brought you similar joy or helped you understand more about your love of the art form? I'd love to listen to and watch some examples if you have them, as well as hear about your experiences about singers and other musicians that have touched your life. As always, the comment section and social media channels are open for your responses and input.

Wishing you all gioia e baci

- Preston

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