Cecilia Bartoli’s new album will be on the shelves in a couple of weeks’ time. If Mission is successful it should put early Baroque composer Agostino Steffani (1655–1728) back on the musical map. He largely fell off it because his ‘day job’ as a diplomat and priest made it necessary for him to write many of his works in secret or under another name.
The Repubblica’s Giuseppe Videtti went to find the world’s most famous mezzo-soprano at her home in Zurich.
Many of Steffani’s manuscripts have been lost. Or destroyed?
It’s true, there are no traces of some compositions. Those that remain are in London and Vienna — it’s there that I found the scores that make up this cd. It amazed me how Steffani’s instrumental writing is so much like Handel’s, which seems to show that Handel was influenced by Steffani, who was thirty years his senior. Operas like Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo and Alcina are extraordinarily similar in style to that of Steffani. It’s surprising and intriguing.
How did you come across a composer so rarely performed?
I wanted to do an early-Baroque project, that period between the Renaissance and the true Baroque, via a composer who was working in that era of transition. So I started to research the period, along with several musicologists, and we came across the opera composer Steffani.
The list of his compositions is long; he must have been a workaholic to find time to compose while carrying out his formal duties.
He composed twenty liturgical works, sixteen operas, and eighty-five chamber music duets. It’s not the first time I’ve surprised the public with rarely recorded music. When I sang the Vivaldi opera arias in 1999, a repertory that is far from being ignored, it included a world première. With the Giardino Armonico we won a Grammy for The Vivaldi album. I hope to do the same here, to help revive the great and forgotten Steffani.
How difficult is it to get to grips with a repertory where there are no recordings or performances?
On the one hand it’s difficult, but on the other it offers great freedom of interpretation. It’s not good to be conditioned by tradition, it often doesn’t correspond to the composer’s intentions. I became aware of that, singing the music of the early 19th Century, Bellini above all. I grew up with his music as sung by the greats of the last century, who brought elements of verismo into it; Bellini, Rosssini and Donizetti in the 60s were sung like one would Verdi and Puccini. But Bellini is a true son of the 18th Century, emerging from the Classical era. He was coming from Mozart not Puccini. Tradition can be a betrayal. Bellini wrote Norma for Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi as Adalgisa, who was a light soprano, the first Amorina in Don Pasquale. We grew up hearing Adalgisa sung by mezzo-sopranos, sometimes almost contraltos, which has nothing to do with the first performances.
One critic, after your Met début in 1996, wrote: she’s wonderful, but it’s a shame that there are not more important roles for her voice. Nothing further from the truth, it seems.
Important roles from the point of view of verismo roles I suppose. I will never do the mezzo-soprano verismo repertory because I don’t have that kind of voice, but I have a vast range of material that many verismo singers can’t confront because they don’t have the flexibly of a voice like mine.
Bartoli rarely sings in Italy and has made her home in Switzerland, so Videtti finished his interview by asking her how Italy seemed to her from afar. “Beautiful”, she replied and tried to stop the tears by joking, “Is it true they’re bring back the Lira?” But the tears rolled anyway as she repeated, “Bella! Bella! Bella!”