IMMORTAL AND GROUNDED

Having read the various brilliant reviews about Cecilia Bartoli’s Norma at the Edinburgh Festival, I recall the day in 1998 when our feminist imprint, The Womens Press published her biography The Passion of Song by Kim Shernin & Renate Stendhal, to an equally riveting critical commendation.

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Hugh Canning reviewing her Edinburgh performance in the Sunday Times ends his piece by saying:

Bartoli is emphatically not Callas; indeed, her Norma could justly be described as the anti-Callas version. Her voice now lies most comfortably in the mezzo-soprano register with which she began her career thirty years ago as Rossini’s Rosina and La Cenerentola. The plush juicy tone is long gone, and it sounds distinctly less well-oiled than on her justly admired early recordings. By rights, she shouldn’t be able to get away with such a formidable role, which Callas modelled in her own image and made into an operatic legend. Bartoli can project Norma’s dilemma as the unmarried mother of Pollione’s child with fierce and devastating intensity. She’s one of the few Norma’s I have seen who might plausibly kill her children out of revenge. She gets Bellini’s notes across the footlights by sheer effort of will, and you see the emotional cost of dispatching them. I have rarely, if ever, been as moved by this opera. Bartoli is literally incandescent here, as she joins her faithless Pollione, the excellent John Osborne, as on a blazing pyre, indoor fireworks and a personal triumph.’

Quoting from the biography we published, here is a passage that for me clearly defines Bartoli’s engaging personality and her common touch:

There is a photograph of Cecilia Bartoli in Salzburg during an interview in 1993, scampering along next to the river in a summer dress, her sneakers dangling over her shoulders. A year later, in downtown Pasadena, on a small patch of ground she again whisks off her shoes and begins to run around. ‘Excuse me,’ she says to the interviewer,’ but it’s very important for me to feel the ground under my feet.’ When Bartoli showed up for her interview with Newsweek in 1993, she wore no shoes and no make-up. A year earlier, when she was in Los Angeles with her manager, Jack Mastroianni, they came to a hotel where ‘there was a whole grassy field.’ Immediately Cecilia threw off her shoes and ran. She said, “Excuse me for doing this, but when I was a little child one of the things that gave me the greatest pleasure was to go to the park across the street and have my feet feel the earth and the blades of grass.”

If Bartoli is a diva, she’s determined to remain a barefoot diva – grounded, steady, good-natured, an enthusiastic participant in ensemble work, ferocious only where the question of musical integrity is concerned. Cynics (as some music reviewers) wonder how long before she acquires the temperament, the wilfulness, the indifference to others, the headstrong self-regard of the stock diva? When her third Berkeley concert sold out within days, I too began to ask myself how long? It was her health and stamina that concerned me. I had begun to worry that the world would exhaust Bartoli before she had the chance to show the world what was in her. She was generous, spontaneous, warm-hearted, enthusiastic, and she loved to sing. When I thought about Hans Christian Anderson’s Red Shoe dancer, who could not stop dancing I was happy that Bartoli kicked off her shoes at every opportunity.

Such a book reaffirms my conviction that a great artist can enthral her public whilst remaining a dedicated human being, without the pomp and splendour of the roles she portrays in the theatre. I have always regarded opera as the most addictive art medium one can ever encounter and it is all thanks to the great artists who lighten our lives and elevate our spirits where very few mortals can..

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