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One of the special privileges that comes with being a writer is meeting so many truly interesting people. Here I’m eating chocolate with Cecilia Bartoli, the greatest living singer.
“Salieri never poisoned Mozart!” — Cecilia Bartoli
The André Jute Interview
“In Switzerland the temptation of chocolate—the best in the world!—is very close. But I have disciplined myself to wait until after the concert.” Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli is the greatest diva of them all, the female equivalent of all Three Tenors together, the top-selling and most famous classical performer in the world. And the best, in the opinion of many critics.
“The moment I discovered Salieri—the quality of his music, the emotion, so much to say!—I wanted to perform it. The way he composed—the beautiful wind section, the fascinating string section, the obliggati!—is definitely of a very high quality. Salieri convinced me through his music.” She is defined by her enthusiasm and deep knowledge as much as by her towering talent.
“With Salieri it is a very strange situation, because everyone thinks he murdered Mozart, with whom he for instance shared the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. But no one knows Salieri’s music! Salieri’s operas have fantastic characters, so full of emotion, even melodrama. Opera buffe! Of course Salieri didn’t murder Mozart. Schaeffer’s Salieri in the play and the film Amadeus is interesting but total fiction. In fact, after Mozart’s death, Constanza sent her son to Salieri for lessons.”
“Oh, I have a Roman temperament for sure, definitely a bit of fire!” But I’m deprived of a demonstration. She simply doesn’t behave like the Hollywood stereotype of a diva. (Or like too many wretchedly self-important here-today-gone-tomorrow pop “stars”.) Bartoli answers her own phone. One has a conversation with her, instead of being on the receiving end of a monologue. She pushes no predigested politically correct buttons. When interrupted or corrected on a statement of fact, she listens carefully and makes a reasoned argument. She is a warmly agreeable woman who just happens to be inordinately talented and justly renowned for her skill and commitment to her art. She would fit easily into anyone’s corner pub.
Two hundred years later Bartoli the singer is the song, in the words of Giovanni de Gamerra which Salieri set: Faithful and loving,/ Well-mannered,/ Neither clumsy nor foolish,/ Neither coarse nor rude,/ But friendly and polite,/ Rich, elegant and handsome,/ And with a good brain,/ Rare enough nowadays.
Perhaps her rocketing elevation to a dominant position in her profession, eight years from debut to superstardom in the standard repertoire of both recital and opera, and latterly in Baroque music, accounts for her sweet temperament. Her parents were both professional singers. “From my parents I learned fantastic things. I went to the opera since I was five years old and we had many, many records.” Her quick mind skips by association to a question I asked earlier, about whom she admires. “The ideal singer is a kind of monster.” This is the single instance of her English letting her down. She means a magpie, a gatherer of gems from others. “Conchita Supervia, from early in the 20th century: I admire her personality, and her phrasing. Tito Schipa is another.” Her acute sensitivity extends to other instruments beside the voice. “And some pianists. Rudolf Serkin sings with his piano.”
Of course we return to food. “Turkish cuisine!” Can she cook? Of course she can, but she says modestly, “I’d better leave that answer to my grandmother.” Encouraged by her warmth, I ask an impertinent question. “I have to diet occasionally,” she admits with a melodramatic tinge of sadness one is intended to admire for its sly wit. “Fortunately we Mediterranean Italians cook with olive oil rather than fat. But temptation is always around us.” Chocolate hour is happy hour.
“Yes, there is a price for being an artist. You pay a little bit in your private life. You have to discover what you can afford for your art. I am a very private person. It is important to protect privacy as much as possible.” Self-pity holds no attraction for her, unless it relates to music: “The moment you discover a composer like Salieri, or even Vivaldi’s operas, you encounter resistance.”
“Whoa!” I say. “If I put any more about Salieri in the article, your photograph will be reduced to the size of a postage stamp.” But she is not vain. Her passion overwhelms such mundanity. Eating Swiss chocolate with Cecilia Bartoli is a more life-enhancing experience than one’s physician will ever believe: joy with with added glee.
By courtesy of the Irish Examiner. Copyright © Andre Jute
About André Jute
André Jute was educated in Australia, South Africa and the United States. He has been an intelligence officer, racing driver, advertising executive, management consultant, performing arts critic and professional gambler. His hobbies include old Bentleys, classical music (on which he writes a syndicated weekly column), cycling, hill walking, cooking and wine. He designs and builds his own tube (valve) audio amplifiers. He is married to Rosalind Pain-Hayman and they have a son. They live on a hill over a salmon river in County Cork, Eire. There are over three hundred editions of his books in English and a dozen other languages.
More about Andre at CoolMain Press
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