Cecilia Bartoli has been merrily irritating her opera colleagues and connoisseurs for more than 20 years now. With her smoky-yet-nimble mezzo-soprano, her quasi-Scottish rolled Rs, and her taste for long-forgotten repertoire, she has molded parts of the establishment to her will and ignored the rigid rest. Already a major star in 1996, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut that year in Così fan tutte. Cast in the secondary role of Zerlina, she overshadowed all the principals. Two years later, she alienated the director Jonathan Miller and the whole cast of Le nozze di Figaro by substituting a pair of arias from an early version of the opera. She has not been back to the Met since — in fact, she’s been almost entirely absent from the American operatic stage.
But Bartoli has done what few other singers manage: maintained firm control of an unconventional career without paying a price in popularity. Some great singers leverage their talents with cheesy celebrity-stoking affairs; she’s used hers to indulge some distinctly antiquarian interests. She has inveigled impresarios into staging Haydn and Vivaldi operas they barely knew existed, forged alliances with early music ensembles, and dragged her record company along on research expeditions. She has forced the world to honor her idols (the singers Pauline Viadot-Garcia and Maria Malibran) and appreciate her favorite composers, including the perpetual not-Mozart, Antonio Salieri. She keeps vanishing into archives, only to emerge with dusty gems and polish them up with her prodigious supply of breath.
“I am the Indiana Jones of classical music,” she told NPR, and she’s not far off. Onstage she has a bit of that shambling Harrison Ford swagger, and she snaps off roulades so sharply she might as well be using a whip.
Two recent projects encapsulate her idiosyncrasy. Mission is a tribute to the eminently obscure late-17th/early-18th Century composer Agostino Steffani, who parlayed his musical successes into diplomatic ones. (In fact, he rose to such heights of respectability that writing music was considered beneath him, and he had to give it up.) The disc begins with a festive burst of danceable music, and Bartoli echoes the trumpets with a tone that isn’t brassy, but buzzes with martial vigor. Two dozen tracks later, she floats a lovely lamentation over a rustle of strumming and braids her voice together with a recorder’s satin thread. In between, she presents a menu of baroque affects — rage, terror, solace, pity, pride — all filtered through her dazzling joy in making music.
Bartoli has co-opted her own eccentricities, converting them into elements of an unmistakable style. Her sound is alive with impurities: a hazy breathiness; karate-chop accents that substitute for vocal power; quick notes that shoot off her palate like so many flicked marbles; hard consonants that click by with exaggerated clarity. She’s like a tennis player with an awkward but unreturnable stroke: The results are consistently miraculous.
Her interpretive abilities are so finely calibrated that, with a tiny spurt of intensity, she can swivel mid-phrase from desolation to anger. She can also sound like she’s trying too hard, as though every grace note were a cliffhanger, and every rising scale a space launch. Maybe that’s why she gravitates to music long written off as gray — because she can saturate it with colors of her own choosing. But whether she’s singing certifiably great opera or some underappreciated Victorian parlor tune, there’s never any doubt that she is producing exactly the music she wants. All that mannered brilliance and ferocious purpose is difficult to resist.
Finally, she has turned to Norma. Bellini’s harmonious melodrama about a lovelorn druid priestess is one of opera’s holy relics, and it’s hard to sit down to a new rendition without reciting a catechism of sopranos who have gone before: Pasta, Lehmann, Ponselle, Sutherland and so on. Bartoli barges into this company uninvited. She’s not a soprano, for one thing, but a mezzo. She lacks the turbo-charged top that modern audiences expect and big houses (like the Met) demand. Among the guardians of bel canto style, Norma requires an almost impossible combination of lacy elegance and turbine-turning lungpower. So, armed with legitimate historical argument (and a new critical edition), she lowers the tuning slightly down to its 1830s standard (A=430) so that the high notes aren’t quite so blisteringly high.
Supported by a terrific cast (Michele Pertusi, John Osborn and Sumi Jo) and a light-footed period instrument ensemble (Orchestra La Scintilla), Bartoli delivers a performance that’s light, intimate and intense. She trains all her expressive artillery — her turn-on-a-dime emotional range, her vocal crackle and crystalline diction, her dark mauve timbre — on the mercurial protagonist. Norma is irresistible to divas because she is a diva, and Bartoli remakes the character in her own mold, as the tender center of a tiny world.