First Listen: Cecilia Bartoli, 'Mission'

by Tom Huizenga
September 23, 2012

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Midway through her ambitious new album Mission, Cecilia Bartoli sings, in vehement Italian, "I take no counsel, except from fury. A desire for vengeance and zeal for honor care naught for danger." Those words could have been an epitaph for Agostino Steffani, the man who wrote the music she's singing.

Steffani, barely more than a footnote in music history these days, wrote reams of well-built vocal music a generation before J.S. Bach and led an extraordinary life. When Steffani wasn't composing some 15 operas and 75 chamber duets, he accepted missions throughout Europe as a priest, diplomat and political operative. He rubbed elbows with German royalty, the Austrian emperor and the Pope. His life, according to Bartoli, was shrouded in mystery and conspiracy.

All of which is great fodder for Bartoli's record company, Decca, which must be having a blast promoting the album. Photos (see the slideshow above) feature a bald Bartoli as a Steffani stand-in whispering secrets to heads of church and state. The label had a secret of its own: Months before the album's Oct. 2 release, the company imposed a gag rule on naming the composer of Mission. In a nod to the Steffani's James Bond-ish life (he was indeed tangentially connected to a murder he didn't commit), the company launched a kind of Internet scavenger hunt via video webisodes, each of which would reveal a secret word.

So, with all the intrigue and promotional bluster, what does Steffani's music actually sound like? It's wonderful and remarkably wide-ranging. Bartoli thinks of Steffani as an important missing link between Monteverdi and high Baroque composers like Vivaldi and Handel. She has a knack for ferreting out unsung composers and making their music shine, and this Steffani disc is right in line with her illuminating recordings of music by Porpora, Graun, Caldara and Salieri. Out of the 25 selections on Mission, 20 are appearing on CD for the first time.

Steffani, who was born in Italy but spent most of his life in Germany, came of age in the era of the castrati. They were rock stars of opera who, at a tender age, underwent a certain surgery to prevent puberty and create permanently high-pitched and powerful voices. Some even wonder whether Steffani himself might have been a castrato, since he was routinely praised for his excellent singing. In any case, he knew how to craft the virtuosic arias the castrati craved. There are plenty of tempestuous coloratura passages on Mission, but also slow arias of deep contemplation and lament — and some music that just rocks out.

"Più non v'ascondo," a perky little love aria from Steffani's 1709 opera Tassilone, sports tambourines, a Baroque guitar and danceable rhythms. With a bright, warm tone and the smile of a giddy lover in her voice, Bartoli negotiates the roller-coaster runs easily and ends with vocal wink on the word "contenta" as castanets rattle off the final beat.

In the opera house, Bartoli's voice can sound surprisingly slender, but on recordings, size isn't an issue. On Mission, she displays all the agility, color, drama and volume needed to illuminate Steffani's music — even in places where, frankly, it could use a boost. Listen to the emotionally flat "Deh stancati, o sorte" and it's obvious that Steffani is no Handel. Yet there is fairly strong evidence that the masterful Handel actually stole from Steffani.

But set the needle down almost anywhere on this album — yes, it will be released on vinyl, too — and you'll find Bartoli at just about her best. She can spray notes like machine-gun fire in "Mie fide schiere," calling the troops to arms. Or she can melt hearts with a creamy tone and long-lined melodies in arias of lament and love, especially "Amami, e vederai," where she's accompanied by a solitary lute. Elsewhere on the disc, she's paired with French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and accompanied vigorously by the excellent period-instrument orchestra I Barrocchisti.

There are undoubtedly questions yet unanswered about the mysterious life of Agostino Steffani, but not about the essence of his music. Bartoli has brilliantly resolved that. She can chalk Mission up as another fascinating success in her keen and continuing musical archeology. She's touring the album in Europe through December.

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