The sensationally gifted mezzo Cecilia Bartoli has been recording concept albums for some time now — CDs that go far beyond the typical "...Sings French Opera!" Among her signal successes for the Decca/London label have been CDs devoted to the long-neglected music of Salieri and Gluck, and one to baroque music written to sneak past prohibitions by the papal court (this last CD being the one with the odd cover photo of Bartoli wading through the Trevi Fountain à la Anita Ekberg). Her 2007 CD Maria goes yet a stage further in being a "concept": an album devoted to music sung by or at least written for the Romantic-age diva Maria Malibran. With nearly a full 80 minutes of music, the CD includes three familiar arias by Bellini that are normally performed by sopranos, plus fascinating rarities by Mendelssohn and Hummel and a couple of numbers written by Malibran herself — altogether, eight world premiere recordings out of 14 arias and "scenas." There are several editions of this recording, one with a behind-the-scenes DVD; my copy, just the CD at regular price, has the disc inserted in a 150-page handsomely-designed hardbound booklet.
Bartoli's instantly recognizable timbre and style of singing may not be for every taste, just as Elizabeth Schwarzkopf did not please everyone. That is, some listeners have found her to "over-act" or over-interpret each note or to be self-indulgent in her virtuosity. But others are thrilled precisely by what may be called her commitment to drama and display of undeniably astonishing vocal gifts, including great agility in bravura passages, perfect trills, tenderness in lyric passages, and a rich lower register combined with the ability to soar into soprano range. Evidently Maria Malibran had a basically mezzo vocal range as well, considering her repertoire — a point argued by Bartoli and musicologist Martin Heimgartner in the extensive booklet notes — and as is made obvious by the performances themselves of "Maria's" music.
Malibran was a part of a musical dynasty that included her father, the Spanish tenor, composer and impresario Manuel Garcia (Rossini's first Almaviva), and her younger sister Pauline Viardot, whose long career is too spectacular to summarize here. During her own short career (she died at 28), Malibrian was hugely admired by Rossini, Bellini and Chopin among others, and was the toast of England (where she debuted as Rosina and later sang Beethoven's Fidelio in English), New York (where at 17 she was Zerlina in the American premiere of Don Giovanni, with her father singing the Don as a tenor and Lorenzo da Ponte in attendance), and western Europe.
Decca and Bartoli order the program for maximum contrast of
numbers, but to survey the album overall I will suggest four groupings. First is
music by Garcia and Malibran themselves. Garcia's "greatest hit" in his lifetime
was a flamenco-style smuggler's song, "Yoque soy contrabandista," which Bartoli
tosses off with accompaniment by castanets, guitar and flamenco clappers. A
grander undertaking is a scene with chorus from the opera La
figliadell'aria, written for Malibran and premiered in
The Malibran songs are also highly contrasting. First is "Rataplan,"
one of those jaunty drummer's ditties, this one (in French) notable especially
for lengthy rolling of the r's — it must be a hilarious encore piece performed
live. Second is an aria Malibran used as a substitution for Adina's last aria in
Donizetti's L'elisird'amore when
she played the role at La Scala in 1835. One can only imagine the outrage today
over such a "maiming" of Donizetti's comic masterpiece, but at the time, a
The items by German/Austrian composers (both in Italian) are also of great interest. Mendelssohn wrote Infelice, a scene for voice, violin obbligato and orchestra, for the London Philharmonic Society, evidently for Malibran and the concert violinist Charles de Bériot, her lover and later second husband, though they never performed it. Based on a text by Metastasio, the 12-minute scene features a standard pattern of recitative ("The traitor left me!"), Adagio ("Ah, for the golden age of love!"), and agitated Allegro ("Yet hope turns to torment!"), but sounds thoroughly Mendelssohnian in both its tender and stormy moments. Decca, following its long tradition of luxury cameos, provides a rich-toned Maxim Vengerov for the duet with Bartoli.
Hummel's Tyrolian Air With Variations--written for, dedicated to and premiered by Malibran in 1830 — is pure fun. The Alpine waltz with slow and fast variations calls for a bit of yodeling (a "Yodeling Coach" is listed in the CD credits) as well as dazzling virtuosity, which Bartoli carries off with deadpan humor.
A third category of works on the program is comprised of arias
by bel canto composers beyond the triumvirate of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.
Bartoli chooses arias from three operas written for Malibran for
Finally we have a trio of famous scenes from Bellini operas.
The novelty here is that all of this music is nowadays thought by the public to
belong to high sopranos — Sutherland and Callas, perhaps most famously, not to
mention great voices before and after them. So it is fascinating to hear the
familiar arias as Malibran presumably performed them — to be sure, with the
lower tuning (A = 430 rather than today's 440) of her day. Though the part of
Amina in La sonnambula was written
for Giuditta Pasta, it became one of Malibran's signature roles; Bartoli gives
us the finale — its tearful lament followed by a jubilant cabaletta — with
Malibran's own rich embellishments of the second verse of the cabaletta. We are
also given the Mad Scene from I puritani,
in a version written for Malibran to perform in
Finally, most famous of all (and the finale of the CD recital), we have "Casta diva" from Norma. Taking an especially slow tempo and scrupulously following the pianissimo marking, Bartoli gives a hushed, delicate rendition of the aria. It doesn't soar thrillingly on the high notes as many classic performances do, and may be a little too self-consciously enacted, but it's a fascinating version of this familiar music.
An important part of the success of this CD is the incisive conducting of Adam Fischer. La Scintilla is the period-instrument orchestra of the Zurich Opera, and its softer, mellower timbres are especially notable in "Casta diva" and other quieter arias. A group called the International Chamber Soloists, providing the chorus in five of the numbers, is beautifully integrated into the ensembles, and Decca's engineers work out a fine balance between Bartoli's voice, the orchestra, and the chorus and other soloists. The hardbound booklet, with its photos of Malibran artifacts from Bartoli's personal collection (e.g., a coffeepot with the diva's portrait painted on it) and even more fan photos of Bartoli, is merely the icing on the cake.