A CONVERSATION WITH CECILIA BARTOLI
One of your great musicology interests is the celebrated Belcanto star of the 19th century: Maria Malibran. To what extent was she decisive for you to begin to deal more intensively with Belcanto and Rossini?
On the contrary, it was Rossini that brought me to belcanto and Malibran! Rossini’s music and the Belcanto stand at the beginning of my musical career, followed by Mozart, Haydn and later the great masters of baroque music. So like most young Italian mezzo-sopranos I gave my stage debut 19 years old as Rosina in The Barber of Seville in Rome (with my father singing in the choir in his last year before retirement as a member of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma). But when you deal with Rossini you quickly trip over the legendary García family with the most gifted daughters: Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot, doubtless together with their father, Manuel Garcia, amongst the greatest Rossini singers of all time or as Rossini writes in a letter now in my collection of composer’s autographs and musical manuscripts: »… it pleases me to declare that if I owe a great deal to your father , I owe even more to his daughters and that for this Heavenly Triumvirate my gratitude is equal to my admiration…«
According to what criteria did you include the individual Rossini works in your repertoire? Did you initially approach them through individual arias? Or did you focus on the entire piece?
During the early years of my career, Rosina was the part that opened the doors of many international opera houses for me, and the Barber became my first studio recording. Cenerentola followed soon after, also a recording of Turco. The releases of a Rossini aria album and another with 19 of his little known songs really boosted my career, first in the US, then in Europe.
As I went on, I started to study more of his operas, the repertoire of Maria Malibran, Giuditta Pasta, Isabel Colbran (Rossini’s wife), Pauline Viardot and others. It is always something different that first attracts your attention: the story, the actual role, the vocality, the overall structure of the piece.
You regularly snatch unknown works and composers from oblivion. Now you have chosen La cenerentola and Turco in Italia for this Vienna guest performance: Two rather early operas by Rossini, both essentially belonging to the buffo genre, both among the better-known works by this composer. How did this choice come about?
Well when Bogdan Roscic originally asked me if in 2022 I would be interested to accept for one year some kind of a carte blanche at the Staatsoper, I immediately linked this honorable invitation with the “Rossinimania” that submergenced Vienna in 1822 and the idea was born to remember a little bit that musical landslide that rolled-over Vienna when Rossini arrived in the city and presented the best of his music. So the choice of the the two opera titles and the gala concert is not so much linked to any musicologist Leitmotiv but should just serve to celebrate the composer’s arrival in Vienna and the Rossini fever in the town 200 years ago. La cenerentola was not very popular for a long time but now it certainly is. For me it is definitely one of Rossini’s most beautiful operas and one of the most gratifying to sing and act. It is very funny but it also contains extremely melancholic and poetic sides, and I wouldn’t consider Cenerentola as a tipical Buffo opera. Nevertheless, according to your archives it has been performed only 119 times since 1930 at the Vienna State Opera, as compared to, for example, the 552 performances since 1876 of The Barber of Seville
Although recently produced more often, I would say that Il turco in Italia is not a repertory piece. If I am not wrong and according to your archives there were only ever 3 performances of it at the Vienna State Opera in 1962. I think Turco’s beauties are far less evident, and the way in which the story unfolds – told, for instance, by a Poet, who adapts the storyline in real time as we go along – is extremely unusual and modernistic. It requires an excellent director to stage it convincingly. Also, the parts are very difficult for singers.
Both La cenerentola and Il turco in Italia were not a resounding success at first. What did the audience expect from Rossini that he did not want to fulfil? In the case of Turco: was it the too illusionless view of relationships?
Probably because people – like in everything – tend to think in boxes: they were used to farces, comedies or heroic operas by Rossini. But suddenly he began mixing genres, in Turco even more so than in Cenerentola. And perhaps also Turco in Italia’s plot about flirting, betrayal and divorce where not really what a traditional opera public was used to watch and many people in the audience would not have appreciated that.Today it is exactly these features that raise our interest. One might also point out that Rossini calls Il turco in Italia a „dramma buffo“, whereas works such as La cenerentola or L’Italiana in Algeri are called „dramma giocosa“, so he clearly thought of a difference in genre and style.
What innovations emanate from Belcanto that were essential for the further development of the opera genre? Which traditions did Rossini follow, which aspects of the classical period did he deliberately not continue, where did he break new ground? What in his (italian) works is genuinely Rossini?
Maybe in the context of your question belcanto is the wrong term: in Italian it refers to a particular style of singing. Rossini, and even more Donizetti and Bellini belong to the period of romanticism – in its Italian form - which is often forgotten in the Northern countries, where the term is more associated with composers such as Weber, Schumann, Schubert, Marschner or even early Wagner. When I hear the word romanticism I think more of the subject matter, the wild and forlorn settings, the plot structure and new type of characters which are so far from those prescribed in the classical period. Rossini and other composers from this period were in many ways the pivot between classical models and romantic experiments.
Of course, categorisation is always a problem because in reality everything overlaps. It is well-known, for instance, how much Wagner admired Bellini’s Norma, and you can see a score in his library at Wahnfried. In Zurich you can look at a score of Norma with the markings Wagner made when he conducted this opera at the local theatre.
To what extent can a direct line be drawn from Rossini via Bellini and Donizetti to Verdi? Or must Rossini, in a certain sense, be seen as a solitaire within opera history?
Rossini was a child of his time. He was fortunate enough not to die young but he perfectly understood when it was time to retire. Which means that he retired from writing operas but remained one of the most influential public figures until his death in 1868 – although he had not written an opera for 39 years! Just imagine that Rossini died in the same year that Wagner finished his Meistersinger, Tchaikovsky premiered his First Symphony, Grieg his piano concerto… Whereas in his youth Rossini had still heard some of the greatest castratos. Rossini’s music represents a large chunk of his life but it is far from reflecting the importance of this amazing man in all its consequence.
How does Rossini differ from Bellini and Donizetti in his italian operas?
A feature that is quite unique to Rossini are his famous crescendi, which extend over an unusual length of time. One has to be extremely careful to start them as softly as possible and increase their volume slowly, steadily and with care. And of course the exuberance of his coloratura, his brio and, to a certain extent, a mechanical element, which is very difficult to sing in a convincing and interesting way. Rossini is vertiginous in a way that is unique.
And then, he is probably one of the funniest composers and maybe the most self-ironic: for instance in many a finale he makes fun of this vertiginousness and makes the singers say that their heads are going to explode while he mimicks this with thumps and bell-sounds in the orchestra.
Did Rossini establish a new style of singing or did he only influence the existing style and steer it in a new direction?
What I only really understood when I started to study the art of the castrati properly was that what in fact Rossini admired most, was how castratos sang. Vocally and stylistically. He makes fun of his own opinion in the Barber of Seville when Don Bartolo, who claims that everything was better in the old days, imitates Caffarelli – here you have Rossini’s self-irony again. But there are other famous stories like when Rossini asked a tenor to leave his high C in the cloakroom before entering his parlour, because that tenor had started a fashion of using the chest register for this note, rather than the mixed or head register as had previously been the rule.
How, for example, do the colouraturas of the Baroque differ from those of Belcanto?
Embellishment is a misleading term because coloraturas are never a mere element of making a phrase more beautiful, and what would be worse, making your vocal technique seem more impressive. Coloraturas give a particular expression to a phrase, they intensify it, colour it, change its character – or make it more brilliant. Of course, in the heyday of opera seria they also served as a means of highlighting the excellency of a particular singer. Since in those days singers largely improvised their embellishments, they were also an important means of showing off the musical imagination of the artist.
In Rossini’s time one began to feel that this was getting rather out of hand, and composers wanted to regain control over their music, so they started to write out their embellishments in great detail. A good example of this is the beginning of „Naqui all’affanno“, Angelinas rondo at the end of La cenerentola: it sounds completely free and easy, whereas each of those little notes is prescribed by Rossini himself.
You can see the same development in instrumental music. Cadenzas of concertos began to be prescribed by composers during that same period, whereas earlier the soloist had been expected to improvise them freely.
For Rossini, colouratura was not an accessory, but ultimately the purest, ideal form of art: absolute, total expression, not an imitation of reality, but its interpretation. Do you share this view?
Coloraturas are never accessories, they are a fundamental means of illustrating the words, of highlighting, colouring and intensifiying them, and I think they should be seen as a kind of subtext, the sense of which we must detect while studying the score.
Many of your colleagues point out that Rossini wrote particularly well for female singers: f.e. in terms of phrasing. Is that an opinion you share?
Well, we know that Rossini had a way with women ;) And of course he wrote so many operas for singers he knew inside out, his first wife Isabella Colbran in particular. But he also wrote parts for Manuel García, for instance, which surely suited this particular tenor voice. Thankfully, we have a whole young generation of exceptionally gifted Rossini tenors today and I have been fortunate to work with many of them. But I have never heard one of them complain!
Rossini strongly went over to composing out colouratura in the course of his life: Does that mean that he took away the singers' freedom of expression, or do you see Rossini's notations only as an offer?
Rossini was a very practical person and in those days opera – at least in Italy and France – was a business. As a composer he evidently had no scruples of recycling his music again and again, changing scenes, adding arias to suit a particular singer, and so on. Even though he wrote out so many of his coloraturas he would have expected talented singers like Colbran, Malibran, García etc. to continue improvising. He perfectly understood that if they managed to show off their skills and scored a success, this would fall back onto his own music and increase its chance of being reperformed, thereby generating more income.
He often repeated the da capo part without variation - which was unusual in Belcanto. Was this just laziness on Rossini's part, or is it necessary to stick to it?
This is exactly it: in the da capo-part the singer is challenged to do something of his own with the score and by improvising to show off his interpretative skills.
Vocal technique has changed immensely since the belcato era, for example Verdi's later works led to completely new requirements in terms of how to sing. Do you try to return (partly) to the old singing technique (a kind of historically informed performance) or do you try to use a modern technique with the knowledge of the past?
When I sing baroque, classical or early romantic music I am particularly careful to avoid things that we were used to hearing when we were children but which are historically wrong in that context. So no verismo, no dramatic screaming, no coarseness, no big slides and portamenti. We have to think of Rossini’s music as grounded in baroque and classical music and not retrospectively from the times of Mascagni and Puccini. It requires cleanliness and precision. And if you want to keep up with the required speed you cannot darken your voice or make it artificially heavier in order to gain power or volume. Lightness and flexibility is what you need for this kind of repertoire.
At first glance, the orchestral part does not seem very challenging for the musicians: so that the singing can come into its own even better? What do you expect from the musicians in the pit? What aspects do they have to take into account so that you are satisfied?
If the actual notes are maybe not so difficult to play, I expect even more precision and quickness in reaction, far more colours and shades of dynamics, a great deal of imagination to make the orchestral part interesting. What we do on stage can only make a proper impact on the audience if it is stimulated, mirrored, supported and answered to by what goes on in the pit.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt did not forgive Rossini this triumph in Vienna: He thought that Franz Schubert failed as an opera composer in Vienna because Rossini conquered Vienna with his way of writing and Schubert's style was suddenly unfashionable. Is this "sin" of Rossini venial?
Well, I cannot believe that Nikolaus Harnoncourt said it was Rossini’s „fault“ to have been invited to Vienna and score a success. Personally, I think we have completely forgotten that in those days culture had become very similar to what it is – in some ways regrettably – today: after centuries of relative stability because of a total dependence on a system of patronage it had turned into a commercialized free business where everyone fought very hard for survival. Rossini was an astute businessman, very experienced and well-connected. He spoke English, French and probably understood Spanish. He was also worldly-wise, genial and supportive. What we know is that Schubert absolutely admired Rossini’s music (especially Otello) and even wrote an overture in a some sort Italian or Rossini style in order to honor Rossini. I rather think, dying so young, Schubert’s time as a successful opera composer was still to come. And regarding his failure as an opera composer this should be more linked to the rather bad and confused libretti he had to compose and not so much to Rossini’s arrival in Vienna.
Mozart did not yet distinguish between soprano and mezzo-soprano. How is the situation with Rossini? After all, some of his operas - e.g. Cenerentola, Barbiere, Italiana - are specifically written for mezzo voices. Did Rossini have as essential an influence on the development of the mezzo-soprano type as Verdi did on that of the »cavalier baritone«?
In general, the distiction was not made until far into the 19th century. During what we call the Belcanto period roles in Italy were not described by what in German you call „Stimmfach“ but by the singer’s position in the theatre, which had a direct impact on their contract and their salaries: prima donna di prima sfera, seconda donna etc. This again was printed on the playbills for marketing reasons, so here again, you witness the commercial character of the opera business at that time.
In the original score of Norma it says: Norma – soprano, Adalgisa – soprano, Clotilde – soprano! In the 20th century we believed that Norma must be sung by a soprano and Adalgisa by a mezzosoprano. But this was only because by that time sopranos had conquered the position of what in the 19th century had been called „prima donna di prima sfera“. During Bellini’s times, for instance, Norma had been sung by Pasta or Malibran, whose timbres were more like what we consider a mezzo-soprano’s, whereas Adalgisa was premiered by Giulia Grisi a light soprano voice and for whom Donizetti had written the role of Norina in Don Pasquale.
Rossini often copied himself: for example, he reused the second tenor aria in Barbiere as the final aria of Cenerentola. Can we say that Rossini was so ingenious that (also in this case): although we can find the same notes, the meaning is not the same?
One aspect of this is indeed the needs of the tough conditions in the commercialized opera market at that time. You had to produce so many goods that often you had to resort to recycling in order to meet the demand and survive.
But I also feel that this is a result of this music being rooted in the baroque and classical tradition: in a way it is indeed more „neutral“, or let us say, less clearly prescribed because it is the performer’s job to fill it with the right expression, the right emotion. This is why there are far less indications in scores from the baroque and classical periods than later when composers tried to foresee absolutely every detail and inscribe it in the score. In many way this implied a certain shift in our profession from interpreter to executor.
Rossini used structural elements of serious opera in comic opera: is that for you just a compositional question or does it also call for conclusions about the works and the interpretation, in the sense of: one must not (any longer) see comic opera as entirely comic?
A mixture of both. As interpreters we must be able to perform this music in a way that makes the audience understand the emotional content in a particular moment. At the same time this was indeed a period where the boundaries between genres began to be more permeable, especially in those works that we are talking about. But don’t forget that this development is already evident in Mozart’s Da Ponte- or his German operas, and also in the semiseria genre, which is exactly what this term signifies.
In many commentaries Rossini pointed out that for him the text was only the servant of the music. And Stendhal said in Vie de Rossini, that the success of Italian opera consisted in the fact that it was sufficient to know roughly the text of an aria, and the music would do the rest. Where does your interpretation start? With the music or the text?
I don’t think you can separate them, especially in this kind of music. The text gives you indications as to how you need to interpret the music. And an opera where you don’t understand the text is not theatre, it is merely a bag of sounds.
With a repertoire that is in part rather little known, you reach a huge audience that goes far beyond the usual opera lovers. Do you see yourself as a kind of music missionary?
Life brought me into such a position, yes. Although if I look back at my starting position I might well have ended up in a moderate situation. I never expected to be thrust into one far more international and glamorous position! But I am very grateful to fate for having brought me here.
But more than anything I do what I do because I enjoy it so much, and because it becomes far more enjoyable when you share it with somebody. And I do believe in a mission of music and musicians.
The ensemble Les Musiciens du Prince-Monaco was founded on your initiative. Could this formation be described - alongside your voice - as your second personal instrument? What are the advantages of this ensemble?
One might indeed describe it in such terms. When I prepare a particular repertoire or a new programme I never simply study my own part and go out to sing it without bothering what goes on around me. For me, the most interesting part in our job is to work out how the vocal line interacts with the orchestra and how they determine one another. Additionally, in an opera production I pay attention to all aspects of the staging and how they lock in place with the music. These interactions are maybe the most important element in a successful musical performance.
So I am immensely fortunate to have been given a chance to do this with an ensemble of my own because more than anything this guarantees continuity. We constantly move forward rather than having to start from scratch every time. During the relatively short time since the Les Musiciens du Prince were formed we have already covered a considerable stylistic and artistic journey together very successfully.
Like the Malibran, you don't limit yourself to singing alone: you are the artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, you are the artistic director of the ensemble Les Musiciens du Prince-Monaco, and from 2023 you will be the first woman in history to be the artistic director of the Opéra de Monte Carlo: You're not doing this because you're bored?
I am never bored! There is so much more music to find and to bring to you all! It’s more about being creative and using my experience and my position in the business to help young musicens, to discover new repertoire,or to enlighten and rethink certain traditions in our way of performing operas and making music in general. And of course the Vienna Staatsoper is perhaps the most famous and important theater on the world, but being the director of one of the most beautiful opera houses of the world with a stunning sea view and an important history (e.g. Berlioz composed La Damnation de Faust, Massenet Don Quichotte and many other of his operas and Ravel L’enfant et les sortilèges for “my” opera house) makes me extremely happy and the decision to accept this new challenge was an easy one. So hope to see you all soon in Monaco and let’ hope all this will be just the begining of a partnership between the most important and the most beautiful opera house in the world.