An intriguing new recording of “Norma” by Cecilia Bartoli unexpectedly sent me careening down memory lane, bumping into ghosts.
In 1998, I published “Cinderella and Company: Backstage at the Opera With Cecilia Bartoli,” which followed the young mezzo superstar for about two years.
Since she canceled frequently, mostly because she hated flying even more than I did, I spent a lot of time with her colleagues and substitutes.
Arriving for a fundraiser at Glyndebourne in the grim offseason, I once found Susan Graham in Bartoli’s dressing room grumpily fighting with her hair as storm clouds gathered outside.
Yes, there was a time when the great Graham subbed for little Miss B as she was sometimes called.
So did Renee Fleming. There I was sitting at my desk in London expecting to die the next day on the flight to Copenhagen, when I got a fax (a fax!) saying Miss B had cancelled. It was from Fleming, who wondered if she should stop scheduling her own performances and just become the savior of the gala industry.
Here in the summer of 2013, I thought of Bartoli, now 47, who has been moving beyond the small batch of Mozart, Donizetti and Rossini roles, topped off with castanet songs, that made her famous. With her small, if focused voice, the big mezzo mamas like Amneris and even Carmen, despite her sultry looks, were not for her.
Just recently, the Italian diva took on the artistic directorship of Salzburg’s little Whitsun Festival and will return as Norma for the grander Summer Festival in August.
Still, the Druid priestess’s raging scales are usually dispatched by soprano divas, like Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland.
Bartoli argues that Bellini really intended Norma for a deeper voice and the role of Adalgisa for a soprano. Scholarly studies fill the cd booklet, along with photos of the diva looking deranged.
(Norma, I might point out, also has the best music in the show until she stalks off to the funeral pyre with the pathetic tenor. Adalgisa is a boring cow).
The result? Pretty fabulous. Even now, Bartoli’s technique continues to amaze, and she sings with a coiled intensity that includes the best rolled R’s in recording history.
Mysteriously, she cast Adalgisa with Sumi Jo, a pert coloratura of the past whose wan delivery nearly sinks the show. Neither is John Osborn much of a lyrical revelation. But Giovanni Antonini and his period orchestra charge through the score with unusual speed and intensity. He’s a real star.
So where are the others whose careers were taking off in the nineties?
Renee Fleming, 54: Soared into the stratosphere, the most successful of them all, thoughtful, inquisitive and equipped with a voice of such beauty I can write the name of the sainted Renata Tebaldi in the same sentence.
Sings less opera as she wafts around Chicago in the numinous role of artistic consultant to the Lyric. Could she perhaps move east and help out Peter Gelb?
Susan Graham, 53: Dropped the baseball cap for haute couture. An ardent singer of Strauss, she’s become a classy recitalist where volume is less important.
Deborah Voigt, 52: Got a lot smaller in size and sound since she billowed forth so promisingly in the nineties. I’d rather rip my ears off than endure another Brunnhilde.
Which reminds me of the other two Boteros: Sharon Sweet (a fabulous Turandot) and Jane Eaglen (a fine Isolde), both mainly teaching now. I miss them.
Patricia Racette, 48: Never established an international presence. Aging out of “Madama Butterfly,” the centerpiece of a small repertoire, but reliability counts for a lot with general managers.
Galina Gorchakova, 51: Vocal trouble, a falling out with conductor Valery Gergiev shortened her career.
The Love Couple, Romanian Angela Gheorghiu, 47, and French-Sicilian Roberto Alagna, 50: Still quarrelling in public, although no longer married. Of the two, Draculette has worn out her welcome more than the charismatic tenor. But happy memories remain! Who but Angela would demand a makeup artist before doing a BBC radio show?
For some, the nineties were also the heyday of the Three Tenors, and, as I look back, an evening spent at a New Jersey stadium with the trio singing “Da moss bootiful sound I ever hurt, Maria!” from “West Side Story” ranks as a highlight of my life. The wind blew, the sound system screeched, the food was terrible, my bus disappeared without me on it.
Luciano Pavarotti has died, Jose Carreras has retired and the amazingly indestructible Placido Domingo (72 or thereabouts) studied up on Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco” while stuck in a Spanish hospital with an embolism. He plans to sing Joan’s father in Salzburg with Anna Netrebko, 41.
Netrebko, discovered by Gergiev when she was just a comely janitress at his Mariinsky Theater 20 years ago, moved at supersonic speed into the spotlight. Her new Verdi album suggests that she, like Bartoli, is working up to a grand new role reserved for dramatic sopranos: Lady Macbeth.
She sings the arias with elan and a high D flat, without providing the palpitating ardor of Callas. But those photographs, so redolent of old-time divadom, are great: You’d need a dipstick to reach her skin.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own.)
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