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CD Feature/ Cecilia Bartoli: "Maria"

img  Tobias

Few singers on the classical scene are able to bring out the rift between the elite and the masses like Cecilia Bartoli. Play “Maria” to a stranger on the street and you are likely to witness the sternest and stone-hearted of men fighting against their tears. At the same time, the album has been chastised almost unanimously by critics and self-declared experts worldwide. How ever could this happen to a project which has all the traits of a classic?

For all the obvious reasons – and then some. While editors of newspapers and webzines alike have dutifully resigned to paying as much attention to Anna Netrebko’s feet as her voice, all the marketing mechanisms of the business, which (lest one forgets), have served sanctified stars like Maria Callas just fine, are held against Cecilia Bartoli. Sexy booklet fotos? The “Museo-Mobile”? All ploys to divert attention from her singing. Releasing an album called “Maria” when the whole world is remembering the legacy of Callas? A mischievous trick. Amidst all of their bickering, however, her opponents have apparently closed their ears.

And I’m not saying that because I claim that there is nothing to criticise about “Maria”. Everyone’s free to discuss whether Cecilia Bartoli’s efforts at Belcanto are intimate and personal fantasies or egoistic trips void of power and imagination. But to pan her for layering her voice upfront, towering as prominently above the orchestra as she would never be able to reproduce in a live situation, is outright ridiculous. As a matter of fact, it is the whole point behind the album.

“Maria” is ultimately more than just a tribute to the first ever true opera diva, Maria Malibran. It is a concept work involving audio and visuals alike. The story of Maria Malibran is quickly told: Educated and sponsored by her composer-father, Malibran toured the USA as part of an opera company, turned into an audience favourite across the Atlantic and then built a devoted community of fans almost everywhere she went in just a few years. She was an icon both of the arts and of emancipation, of smartness, intelligence and beauty. And she turned into a legend not only thanks to her lenient vocal range, but also by her tragic early death at the age of just over thirty.

Cecilia Bartoli is trying to make her come alive again for the duration of this CD. The 150-page booklet that comes inside a hardcover package offers biographical information, anecdotes from her colleagues and contemporaries, newspaper quotes and quips and the lyrics to every single song. A timetable on the back integrates the pieces into the context of her life, short but poignant essays tell of her influence on and inspiration to some of the biggest composers of her era. It is anything but a dry history lesson Bartoli is offering, but a vivid portrait, in which the promo shots only serve to deepen the picture.

The same goes for the production.”Maria” sounds like a radio program from the 50s, recorded with the clarity of the new millenium. Everything revolves around Cecilia Bartoli, even the percussive impulses of Malibran’s own composition “Rataplan” or the castagnette-rhythms of her father’s  signature tune “Yo que soy contrabandista” are mixed to the background. The “Orchestra La Scintilla” adds velvety strings and warm bass drops on Bellini’s “I Puritani” but its harmonies are merely a gentle stream along whose shoreline Bartoli dreams her arias. This nostalgic shimmer is what makes the album recognisable and special and it is the reason why so many will fall head over heels for it – and others will declare it to be overly sentimental.

Apart from the obvious crowd pleasers, though, the work offers quite a few world premiere recordings and some pleasant surprises as well. “Infelice” by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy springs from a dynamic opening, develops a lyrical softness and is then elevated to a sensual and sweet heaven by guest star Maxim Vengerov. On “O rendete mi la speme” Cecilia Bartoli allows her timbre to melt with those of Celso Albelo as well as Luca Pisaroni. And on “Cari Giorni” by Giuseppe Persiani, she reveals the fragility and solitude of the score and explores it with great care.

Effectively, “Maria” is a session of time travelling, a movie purposely shot in black and white. For all of its demonstrative visuality, it is an album which sees Cecilia Bartoli disappear behind the persona of Maria Malibran, instead of glorifying herself by stepping on her pedestal. The rift, of course, will not be bridged and those that have labelled her rendition of “Casta Diva” as “horrible” will not be appeased. As long as this doesn’t put anyone off from crying while listening to this record, then that is fine of course.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Cecilia Bartoli
Homepage: Decca Classics

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