Salon: Sharps and Flats

Published December 13, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Superstardom is nothing new for singers of what we now call classical music. Although comparing different historical epochs is always a fool's game, Enrico Caruso in his heyday was the most popular entertainer in the Western world, probably more like the Michael Jackson of his age than the Pavarotti. Even before such early 20th-century sopranos as Mary Garden and Lily Pons became household names, the convention of the adored, temperamental prima donna was sufficiently well established that Puccini could write an opera about one such fictional last-named diva Tosca.

Cecilia Bartoli is no Tosca -- she became a star without a series of legendary stage performances behind her, without having flowers or corpulent rich men cast at her feet in Milanese restaurants. Her strikingly pure mezzo-soprano tone, natural vivacity, and gawky figlia-next-door good looks had been packaged and marketed to millions of listeners before she ever appeared in a major opera house. There was a musical reason for this as well as a money reason; Bartoli's voice may be beautiful, but it isn't big. When she finally debuted at New York's Metropolitan Opera earlier this year, some critics wondered what all the fuss was about: An appealing young mezzo -- so what else is new?

On disc, however, there has been little argument, either with Bartoli's delightful bestselling compilations of Mozart and Rossini songs or her work in full-length operas. (Her irrepressible performance as La Cenerentola may be the finest ever recorded.) Now arrives that most difficult of moments for star singers, the move away from core repertory. This can often take nightmarish forms: ghastly arrangements of Broadway songs, to indicate lightheartedness; lugubrious mooing through Schubert lieder and extended Wagnerian scenes, to indicate seriousness; duets with Sting or Bono or any other washed-up mononomic pop star.

Given that context, this album of obscure -- at least to most North American ears -- French art songs is not too bad; it's a curiosity rather than a triumph or disaster. On the level of pure sound, unsurprisingly, it is often surpassingly lovely. Bartoli is accompanied here only by the piano of Myung-Whun Chung, known as one of French music's most eloquent exponents. Their recording of Berlioz's "La Mort d'Ophilie," for instance, is finely balanced, full of light, shade, and running water. The trouble arises when you struggle to follow the lyric, and realize that Bartoli's effervescent musical personality is strikingly unsuited to the tormented inwardness and self-conscious fatalism of French Romanticism.

Then again, she's not the only one who has a problem with this material. I'm not sure any singer of the late 20th century could redeem the strain of embarrassing exoticism that infects these songs like an especially extroverted virus. We have faux-Iberian flavors, in Bizet's "Tarantelle," Delibes's "Les Filles de Cadix," and Berlioz's "Zaode"; pseudo-arabesque, in Bizet's "Adieux de l'httesse arabe"; and, most teeth-grittingly of all, the quasi-Jewish "melancholy" of Ravel's "Chansons hibraoques." The world, I imagine, will soon forget Bartoli's efforts to sing in Yiddish or Hebrew -- until the fateful day, many years hence, when she records "L'Chaim" with Cyndi Lauper and Josi Iglesias.

By Milo Miles

Milo Miles' music commentary can be heard on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." He is a regular contributor to Salon

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