The spirits must be abroad tonight, since I find myself feeling pretty feisty
here at the keyboard. So, to rush in where angels fear to tread . . .
The question has been raised of whether Cecilia Bartoli is a pure product of
hype, with Luciano Pavarotti and Leontyne Price as previous examples of same.
Friends of mine (yes, I have a few) know that I'm anything but an apologist
for Moneybags from Modena, alternatively known as the King of the High Cs.
(The thought of Luciano having to eke out an existence on a net worth of a
mere $125 million really breaks my heart. Shall we take up a collection for
the poor man?)
Having seen both LPs (Price and Pavarotti) live on several fortunate
occasions, my firm opinion is that both have a great deal of The Right Stuff,
which is what got them to the top of their professions. Once ensconced there,
the hype machine--bolstered by powerful managements and record
companies--kicked in, prodding both into ill-advised repertory, dubious
recording projects, and stage appearances when discretion might have been the
better portion of valor. However, nobody--especially a black woman in 1950s
America or a 'festively plump' tenor in the glamor-conscious post-Callas
years--could have gotten to the pinnacle of the operatic profession without
the bonafides to back it up. Both could certainly 'deliver' well into their
careers. Whatever negative baggage they've accumulated and how it might have
been avoided is fodder for a whole 'nother discussion.
Back to Bartoli. I've seen her once, in recital, and when asked for an
opinion afterwards, said I'd been "whelmed." Neither over- nor under-, just
whelmed (or passionately ambivalent). Yes, the voice is distinctive and its
owner an idiosyncratic performer--not necessarily a bad thing. And, yes, she
can 'connect' with a live audience at some visceral manner. That said, the
voice isn't especially big or (more pertinent, perhaps) blessed with an
abundance of carrying power--it seemed to poop out several rows short of where
I was sitting. Also, a number of her interpretations (most offensively, the
"Canzonetta Spagnuola") wandered into vulgar and obvious forms of emphasis.
That Rossinian ditty I mentioned was one that Marilyn Horne sang in local
appearances in 1984 and 1994, both times (especially the second) with a vocal
virtuosity and sense of Rossinian style that are not Bartoli's to command.
CB has a voice that seems to record well, which is no small help in building
a 20th Century singing career, and she's got personality aplenty, which
doesn't hurt, either. While no great partisan of Ms. Larmore or Ms. Kasarova,
I think the jury is very much out on CB. Her boyfriend's encouragement of
Baroque/Classical forays seems well-suited to the caliber and cut of her
instrument. Stuff like Susanna seems like a gonzo choice, motivated by non-
artistic considerations and enabled by conductors and impresarios who value
the "Sold-Out" notice that accompanies most Bartoli appearances.
Judging from the viewpoints expressed here, CB is the sort of singer who has
the constant potential to spark violently pro- and con reactions. No bad
thing, especially with all the other issues that tend to get aired in such
debates. Personally, I lean toward the "gimmick" side of the debate, but
there's no doubt in my mind that Bartoli had/has the "star quality" spark
without which no amount of hype can give you a career. Just ask Cheryl Studer.