Cher Public

Transient worker

On this day in 1996 mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli made her Metropolitan Opera stage debut as Despina. (She has not performed at the Met since 1998.) 

Martin Bernheimer in the Los Angeles Times:

Bartoli’s Despina—tough and bright, plump and pretty, earthy and funny–never overstepped inherent musical and theatrical boundaries. She knew when to stand still, when to listen, when to blend into the surroundings and when to disappear. She also knew when the stage was legitimately hers and made the most of every such moment. She never even hinted at the possibility that she was slumming.

Some skeptics had worried that her voice might be small for a house that seats nearly 4,000. No need to worry. Some purists had fretted about her ability to sustain a role usually associated with high sopranos such as Graziella Sciutti, Roberta Peters, Kathleen Battle and Teresa Stratas. No need to fret.

Bartoli was granted one extrovert concession. When Despina finally got to make her entrance, some 45 minutes after the overture, she was required to literally pull a house onto Michael Yeargan’s lovely, sparsely stylized set. It was a harmless gimmick, and it seemed to amuse the singer as much as it delighted her assembled admirers.

As the plot progressed, the gimmick took on a certain emblematic sense of its own. Bartoli’s Despina, after all, was no simpering sweetie-pie, no campy glamour-queen in high heels. She turned out to be a hard-working, warmhearted, street-smart urchin who enjoys a little intrigue when she isn’t too busy scrubbing the pots or soaking her aching feet in the kitchen.

She curled her gutsy mezzo-soprano around the Mozartian cantilena with natural grace and rolled the recitatives with insinuating point. She was irresistible, even when she flirted with danger—introducing grotesque vocal distortion to her masquerades as doctor and notary. She also added a nice in-joke in the latter disguise when her Italian patter suddenly took on an Anglo-Saxon twang.

  • August

    She began with much promise but did she not become something of a parody (of herself?) not long after and ever since? It is difficult to stomach her stage antics and excessive embellishments, often so unmusical.

    • Cicciabella

      Answering against my better judgement:
      1. No, she didn’t.
      2. The “antics” may be difficult to stomach for you, but not for those who value this versatile artist with a unique voice and infectious personality.
      3. The embellishments may border on the excessive (look up the definition of “baroque”), but if you have the technical chops to handle the excessive it becomes brilliant.
      4. Bartoli is almost never unmusical, barring a few examples during live concerts when she flirts with the audience, mostly during encores. She is never unmusical on her recordings or in serious opera. In fact, one of her many qualities is that she is extremely musical.

      • August
        • Nelly della Vittoria

          Sigh. Answering against better judgement too:

          But Sonnambula is a text and score that Bartoli knows more about than most (all?) others who’ve sung it, one of the primo-ottocento scores of which she’s headlined truly revelatory new recordings; in this repertoire, as in much less famous music, she has for years used her clout to get new recordings/productions working from critical editions and historical information, and newly unearthed music from the archive. These are not the decisions of an unmusical artist, and the video you share—with its endless and effortless legato in the cavatina, warm and diaphanous tone, beautiful diction—is a weird choice with which to demonstrate her supposed non-musicality.

      • PCally

        Yep you were probably right about it being against your better judgement responding to someone who only posts in order to slag off on other singers.

      • ChesterS

        Agreed. Bartoli has had a tremendous career.
        I hate when someone’s diva monomania means belittling other singers and their legacy.

      • Luvtennis

        I have great admiration and affection for Bartoli. She is an incredibly important musical presence.

        I cannot abide her use of aspirates in florid music.

        • PCally

          Consign, I admire Bartoli immensely and have enjoyed her immensely at one time or another, but her approach to certain aspects of the music she sings (not just the aspirates, but also the way her voice sometimes sounds like it has no center when she’s singing softly) can really turn me off.

        • August

          Ah yes, the aspirates. Then there’s the rat tat tat. But ok, will give her credit for unearthing so many mummies.

    • Bill

      She does have a remarkable voice and rather a peculiar
      very mixed repertoire (even Maria in West Side Story)
      but now she is also very busy with the Salzburg Festival in the Spring which she manages -- she certainly has her fans in Europe and has plenty of engagements (often also
      early works). I would agree with PCally that she was very good as Despina though I believe she has sung all 3
      Female roles in Cosi fan Tutte at one time or another and I prefer a soprano Despina. She was fun as Susanna but I felt her Mezzo quality voice was not really suitable particularly in overriding the ensembles -- a lyric soprano with a natural beautiful voice is far more suitable in that role. At least to my taste.

      • PCally

        It wasn’t the voice that I felt was necessarily wrong for Susanna per se, I thought her aggressiveness and hard edged approach was kind of tiring and a bit too mean spirited. She had all the notes and blended well enough but it just wasn’t what I look for in the part.

        • Bill

          I kind of agree with you as to the hard edged approach but I recall it to be a new production at the time and Bartoli’s approach (dramatically) may have been following the stage director’s, not her own instincts. When I have seen her (not for a very long time) she was usually a bit over animated on the stage but that seems to be part of her persona and charm

    • z. barf

      Bartoli is a very polarizing singer. While she is highly respected for what she does there are some who dislike her for the very same reasons others praise her.

  • PCally

    Still think the Despina was the best thing she did at the met.

    • trevor

      I treasure the memory I have of Bartoli as Angelina in Cenerentola about twenty years ago at the Met. Yes, she was a little mannered, but the notes that came spinning out were absolute magic…everything was beautifully paced and phrased.

      • PCally

        I liked the Angelina but was kind of underwhelmed at the met, it was way smaller in scale than I’d anticipated and I thought her hyperactivity to counter that was a bit much for me.

  • La Cieca

    Working on the basis that there is no such thing as “too soon.”

    Q: “What is John Copley’s favorite piece of music?”

    a: “The Brazen Overture.”