Cecilia Bartoli

at Orchestra Hall, March 23

By Sarah Bryan Miller

It’s an article of faith for some music lovers that virtually any woman who calls herself a mezzo-soprano is actually a soprano who doesn’t want to admit it. They reason that these singers are (a) simply unaware of what their voice is, (b) lazy, (c) artificially darkening their voices to sound like mezzos, (d) lacking in high notes, (e) afraid of the cutthroat competition among sopranos, who are far more numerous than mezzos, or (f) all of the above.

There’s an element of truth in some of these points: artificially darkening the voice–placing it too far back in the throat to create a richer sound–is often a temptation, and a few who call themselves mezzos undoubtedly are sopranos. Which only makes life still more difficult for lyric mezzos, who, as the lighter-voiced members of the breed, are the ones most frequently accused of attempting to hide from the truth, particularly if they happen to possess good high notes. Frederica von Stade and Susanne Mentzer, two outstanding lyric mezzos who’ve both heard “Are you sure you’re not really a soprano?” a few times too often in their careers, once did the theoretically in their ranges but very soprano letter duet from The Marriage of Figaro at an AIDS benefit in San Francisco after announcing, “Now we’re going to prove to you once and for all that we really aren’t sopranos!”

Vocal color is an important aspect of determining a singer’s category; another is where the strength and beauty of the voice lie. Does a woman sound better in her high range? her middle range? her low range? Her best range is connected to tessitura, or where a given piece of music lies on the staff. Any good mezzo should have a reliable A above the staff and good, ringing Es and Fs–but it’s a place she visits, not where she lives. (Even most true sopranos have trouble with a tessitura that goes above the staff and stays there, a fact lost on contemporary composers who don’t bother to learn anything about the voice and then work their sopranos to death with stratospheric tessituras.) Singing very high takes a lot of effort for most people, and singing in a comfortable place is important to vocal health.

In centuries gone by, all women except the rare and very low voiced contraltos (the literal meaning of which is “against high”) were lumped together under the rubric of “soprano.” But divisions gradually grew between mezzo (middle) sopranos and higher-voiced sopranos and between lyric, or lighter, voices and more dramatic, or heavier, ones. In modern times the Germans have codified voice categories to the point of absurdity with their fach system, which dictates which voices will sing which parts. It divides women’s voices into 12 groups: Soubrette (Gretel, Papagena, and a host of cute little heroines in German operettas never done in this country), Dramatischer Koloratursopran (Norma, the Queen of Night, Violetta), Lyrischer Koloratursopran (all the “ina” roles, including Adina, Norina, Despina), Hochdramatischer Sopran (Elektra, Brunnhilde), Lyrischer Sopran (Micaela, Pamina), Jugendlich Dramatischer Sopran (Melisande, Elsa), Dramatischer Sopran (Tosca, Turandot, Aida), Charakter Sopran (Butterfly, Salome), Dramatischer Mezzosopran (Carmen, Amneris), Dramatischer Alt (Carmen, Erda), Tiefer Alt (“low contralto;” Olga in Onegin, Erda), and Spiel Alt (“lyric mezzo;” Hansel, Cherubino, Angelica in Cenerentola). There’s also a Zwischenfach, a singer whose voice seems to straddle two voice types; that such people exist seems to annoy the orderly German mind, and they’re seldom offered contracts in German opera houses.

Some roles, particularly those that are more difficult to cast, turn up in more than one fach, but the singers are usually rigidly confined to those limits. This sometimes works to the detriment of the music. The role of Despina, the maid in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, for example, is traditionally given to a squeaker, even though her music lies below that of the mezzo sister Dorabella in the ensembles–and the unfortunate result is that Despina’s part is usually lost.

Despina was the choice of Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli for her much-hyped debut at the Metropolitan Opera last season. The announcement was met with a certain amount of incredulity, for Despina isn’t a star vehicle, isn’t the sort of thing one might expect for the most anticipated debut in years. It’s a role in what is dramatically a quintessential ensemble opera, a role that traditionally takes a backseat to the more vocally impressive requirements of Fiordiligi and Dorabella. But it proved a canny choice, allowing Bartoli to show off her ample charm and huge range, and for Despina to be heard in the ensembles. Taking on a role with a lighter orchestra than the operatic norm also allowed her to be heard in the cavernous Met; whether she required miking–a major taboo in opera–was a source of heated discussion for months before and after the performances.

Ever since her first appearance, Bartoli too has been a target of the “Is she a soprano?” routine. Some of this is her own fault, for recording overtly soprano repertoire (like Fiordiligi) she would never perform live. Some of it’s due to her enormous range: “That woman has great high notes–she’s a soprano whether she admits it or not!” And some of it is due to the impression that she might be artificially darkening her voice.

On Sunday night Bartoli gave her first Orchestra Hall recital to an adoring sellout audience, offering the opportunity to judge her voice firsthand. I came away convinced that she’s a true mezzo-soprano–and that she does darken her voice artificially, something that’s wholly unnecessary, especially since it muddied her voice at times. (My first voice teacher told me when I attempted, at the age of 22, to impersonate Marilyn Horne, “Honey, you’re not a 40-year-old woman. Don’t try to sound like one. If you do that now, what will you sound like when you are 40?”) Excess richening of tone, like too many sugar flowers on a lavishly frosted cake, should be scraped off and discarded.

Bartoli’s vocal range and the ease with which she handles the most fiendishly difficult runs is phenomenal. And she’s either got an excellent adviser or a firm good sense of her own in programming; her voice is small, but she sang material that emphasized its strengths. She opened with music of Vivaldi, accompanied by harpsichord, portative organ, and string quartet: a motet for soprano, a cantata for contralto, and an aria, “Agitate da due venti” (“Whipped Up by Two Winds”) from the opera Griselda (fach unspecified). It was an unusual choice, but one that worked; at its most agitated, Vivaldi’s music would defeat most singers, but Bartoli tossed it off with ease.

In the second half of the program, accompanied by piano, she moved to luscious music by Ravel, Viardot, Delibes, and Rossini, a set studded with more tra-la-las and tralililalas than one normally hears in a month of Sunday recitals. That’s all right; nobody does it better than she. She spreads charm, and if she was occasionally a little too cute in some of her mannerisms and characterizations, particularly the near-falsetto “boy” voice of Ravel’s “Chanson hebraique,” the audience didn’t mind at all.

But Bartoli is utterly excruciating to watch. She bobs her head back and forth like a chicken pecking for corn when she negotiates runs, she grimaces like a Greek mask of tragedy, she does funny things with her jaw that set off sympathetic twinges in the observer and make one fret for her long-term singing future. Yet she seems to be having a good time–she clearly loves what she’s doing, and she shares that feeling with her audience. She’s very talented and truly charismatic, a combination that covers a multitude of sins.

She was accompanied by the excellent Gyorgy Fischer on keyboards and by the merely acceptable string quartet I Delfici in the Vivaldi numbers. I Delfici’s violist is her brother Gabriele Bartoli; his presence may go a long way in explaining theirs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Cecilia Bartoli photo/ uncredited.