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.