Reviving Operas from Czarinas ; Cecilia Bartoli Explores Little-Known Music from 18th-Century Russia

By Fonseca-Wollheim, Corinna Da | International New York Times, October 24, 2014 | Go to article overview

Reviving Operas from Czarinas ; Cecilia Bartoli Explores Little-Known Music from 18th-Century Russia


Fonseca-Wollheim, Corinna Da, International New York Times


Cecilia Bartoli's latest album explores little-known music from 18th-century Russia.

"So what's next, Cecilia?"

"Well, I thought I'd record some Russian Baroque opera arias."

"Russian? Baroque? I'm not sure I heard you right. Did you say, 'opera'?"

It's fun to imagine the reaction of record-company executives when Cecilia Bartoli, the Italian mezzo-soprano and best-selling recording artist, announced her latest passion. She has made a specialty of performing long-neglected music. Even her 1999 "Vivaldi Album," which first shot her to the top of the classical charts, was a gamble on a composer popularly associated with violin music. Since then, she has championed the repertoire of the 19th-century diva Maria Malibran; the music written for castrati; and the work of Agostino Steffani, an 18th-century composer, cleric and spy.

This month, Ms. Bartoli embarked on a European concert tour to promote "St. Petersburg," a Decca CD containing the world-premiere recordings of 10 arias and one choral scene written for a succession of empresses -- Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great -- who ruled and transformed Russia in the 18th century. Most are sung in Italian; two in Russian.

The composers include one German, Hermann Raupach, among a list of Italians: Francesco Domenico Araia, Vincenzo Manfredini, Domenico Dall'Oglio and Domenico Cimarosa. With the exception of the last, they are virtually unknown. On the map of recorded European opera history, this is terra incognita.

In a telephone interview, Ms. Bartoli said that as most music students were, she had been taught that Russian opera began in 1836 with Glinka's "A Life for the Czar." But as she began to delve into Italian Baroque vocal music, she found repeated mentions of composers who had spent time at the court of St. Petersburg as long as 100 years before Glinka.

"I thought, 'Oops, why did all these people go there?"' Ms. Bartoli said. "It turned out they were invited by the Czarinas of the time. I thought: 'This is interesting. I'd love to look into the music."'

That turned out more difficult than expected. The manuscript scores of the operas written for the empresses were tucked away inside the archives of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. It took Ms. Bartoli several attempts and the intercession of Valery Gergiev, the conductor who is the general and artistic director of the Mariinsky, to gain access. Averse to flying, she traveled by rail or water; for one visit in 2012, she crossed the Baltic Sea on an icebreaker.

"Finally, I was able to go into the archives," she said. "And I found jewels. Beautiful music."

It's also music that plays to Ms. Bartoli's strengths. Accompanied by the characterful and energetic period-instrument ensemble I Barocchisti, under the direction of Diego Fasolis, she offers a selection that showcases her impeccable coloratura technique as well as her ability to spin seemingly endless legato lines in an expressive, quietly gleaming mezza voce. The intensity she brings to rage arias like that of Hercules in Raupach's "Razverzi pyos gortani, laya," from "Altsesta," belies the relatively modest power of her voice. The outsize emotions and attention-grabbing effects are those of grand opera; the care lavished on detail and color in the interplay of voice and instrumental solos is rooted in chamber music.

But why was Ms. Bartoli the first to record this repertory? The neglect by performers is due to the scarcity of published sources and performing editions, itself the result of the ambivalence shown to this period by Russian and Soviet historians.

According to Inna Naroditskaya, a professor of music at Northwestern University in Illinois, dual anxieties regarding the influence of foreigners and the power of women informed their judgments. These are operas that were commissioned from foreigners by female rulers who all had one foot in the West: Anna had spent formative years at the court of Courland (in modern-day Latvia); Elizabeth was part German; Catherine was born German, and a Lutheran. …

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