Cecilia Bartoli has Madonna-like impact on classical music

March 20, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Luciano Pavarotti's successor as opera's biggest draw is not balding, fat and homely. In fact, the new King of Opera is a beautiful young Queen.

People who know about Cecilia Bartoli are probably smart enough to know they won't be able to get a ticket to her recital of obscure Italian baroque and classical songs in Washington Friday. The Kennedy Center's 2,800 seat Concert Hall was sold out more than six months ago -- as was every other theater the 27-year-old Italian mezzo-soprano is scheduled to visit on her current American tour.

How hot is Bartoli? In the last few months, all six of her latest CDs have led Billboard's classical best-seller list, two of them passing to the top positions on the magazine's "Crossover" list. Last week when she autographed albums at Tower Records in San Francisco, thousands of fans lined up for more than five hours. Bartoli is the Madonna of the classical-music world.

After her first American tour in 1991, Bartoli returned to Italy with barely $1,000. Now her fee is estimated to be about $50,000, and it is expected to jump into the six-figure stratosphere, equaling or topping the fees of Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman, both of whom Bartoli has already surpassed in record sales.

Given that Bartoli is a mezzo, not a high soprano, this is astonishing. In recent years, the only superstar mezzo has been Marilyn Horne. But it was her friend, soprano Joan Sutherland, who was called "la Stupenda"; the great mezzo was just "Jackie Horne."

There are various explanations for Bartoli's rapid ascent, including the Rossini revival, with its restoration of the composer's great mezzo roles -- forgotten for almost 150 years -- for which her voice is perfectly suited. But the comparison with Madonna is telling. Like the American pop diva, the Italian is a natural in the video age.

Bartoli's a remarkably good-looking young woman, part pint-sized Gina Lollobrigida and part Virgin painted by Raphael. This combination of innocence and sensuality has been played up and marketed aggressively by her record company, Decca-London. In her first solo record in 1989, "Rossini Arias," the cover photo showed the singer in a filmy black-lace gown, wearing brilliant, dangling earrings, with lipstick too red for her 22 years, and with her hands, one curled provocatively over her breast, in long red leather gloves.

Bartoli's more recent album covers, albeit more tasteful, are equally striking. As her television appearances and a British documentary, now available as a video, make clear, the camera loves her. This may be the reason that, unlike Horne, who was not "discovered" until she was nearly 40, Bartoli did not spend years on the slow track.

Her European career was launched when she was 18 by an Italian TV broadcast. Two years later, in 1987, her appearance on a French TV tribute to Maria Callas reached a larger audience, making fans of such star conductors as Daniel Barenboim, Riccardo Chailly, Sir Georg Solti, James Levine and the late Herbert von Karajan.

Bartoli's video appearances remind a viewer of another Marilyn. There is an uncanny resemblance to Marilyn Monroe in that Bartoli seems unbelievably comfortable with her body under the camera's merciless gaze. This may partly be the consequence of her background as a dancer. As the teen-age daughter of two opera singers -- her mother remains her only teacher -- she went through a two-year rebellion against music in an intense study of flamenco. Unlike most opera divas, dancers like being looked at it. Bartoli conveys this joy to the viewer.

She's also a terrific actress -- perhaps the most promising on the operatic stage since the young Callas. Her performance of Rosina's "Una voce poco fa" from "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" is almost as joyously provocative as that of "La Divina" herself.

The qualities of spontaneity and joy have helped her to outdistance such competition as the formidable Kathleen Battle. Comparing Bartoli to other singers is like comparing Pavarotti to other tenors. Placido Domingo has a voice as beautiful as Pavarotti's, and many musicians believe he is the better musician and actor. But Pavarotti wins audiences by projecting a joy in singing that no other tenor matches. And he does it #F without Bartoli's striking physical appearance.

But Bartoli is more than a pretty face. Great mezzo voices are rare, and great coloratura mezzos rarer still. The coloratura refers to her extravagant ease in ornamentation; Bartoli sings cruelly difficult music as easily as if she were chatting on the phone -- bursting into fantastic runs up and down octaves, making trills flirt and roulades tease.

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