Cecilia Bartoli's Latest 'Mission' Rediscovers Agostino Steffani

Sep 24, 2012
Originally published on October 11, 2012 10:09 am

Cecilia Bartoli has a passion for musical archaeology: "I am the Indiana Jones of classical," she says jokingly to All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.

Bartoli rummages through music history to uncover forgotten opera composers deserving of her detailed and dramatic performances. Her new album, Mission, introduces her most recent "find," the late-17th-century Italian Agostino Steffani.

Bartoli has also developed a taste for provocative album covers. On Mission, she's bald-headed and wild-eyed, dressed as a priest, brandishing a bejeweled cross. Steffani, it turns out, led a colorful life: Beyond writing florid vocal music, he became a priest, a diplomat and a political operative.

"Steffani actually is a quite mysterious composer," Bartoli says. "I always wanted to do music of a composer which was, let's say, a pre-Baroque project. He composed wonderful music and beautiful melodies — beautiful, rhythmic arias and energetic pieces full of fire."

Steffani and his music are little-known today, but Mission should go a long way toward changing that. Bartoli says that because Steffani was an Italian who spent most of his life in Germany, he never quite made his mark musically in either culture. Then there were his political pursuits.

"The diplomatic missions, at a certain point in his life, were more important, and he had to quit music," Bartoli says.

Most of the two dozen arias on the new album have never been recorded. Steffani, Bartoli says, "is a forgotten genius who's been overlooked for far too long."

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.


SIEGEL: This music may be unfamiliar, but the singer may not be. She's the wonderful Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. The composer has been rescued from obscurity by Bartoli - Agostino Steffani. Steffani lived from 1654 to 1728, and what a life. He composed operas. He was a diplomat. He was a Catholic churchman, a bishop. And in time, he was forgotten.

CECILIA BARTOLI: We do have his music, and through his music today, we can really say then he was really a very gifted composer and a composer who need attention and deserves actually to be discovered.

SIEGEL: Cecilia Bartoli's new album "Mission" is all music by Agostino Steffani. She figures one reason for his lost of renown over the centuries was that he didn't have a nation of chauvinists celebrating him. He was from Italy but made his career in Germany. She says Italians thought of him as German. Germans figured he was Italian.


SIEGEL: Cecilia Bartoli, welcome to the program once again.

BARTOLI: Thank you. Great.

SIEGEL: And tell us about Agostino Steffani and how you became so interested and so enamored of his music.

BARTOLI: Well, Agostino Steffani actually is a quite mysterious composer, and I always wanted to do music of a composer which was, let's say, a pre-Baroque project between end of Renaissance music and pre-Baroque music. And the name of Steffani somehow was coming up quite frequently, and one day, I decided to do research, and then I realized that he was an Italian composer who left Italy very young. When he was only 8 years old, he went to Germany, but he composed wonderful music and beautiful melodies, beautiful rhythmic arias, you know, energetic pieces full of fire.

SIEGEL: Now, one thing which I gather Agostino Steffani was famous for was his many duets. Here's an example. This is a very vigorous piece from the opera "Le Rivali Concordi," the "Rivals Agree." You're singing, and we're also hearing another singer and a chorus. This is called "Timori, Ruine."


SIEGEL: Cecilia Bartoli, tell us about your partner in this duet.

BARTOLI: Yes. This is a very beautiful actually duet, and I was so lucky to have in this project the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, French countertenor, which is an amazing artist, you know, who really understand all this nuance that you find in the music of Steffani. And the two voice that melts together so beautifully.

SIEGEL: I mean, I assume the two of you are singing the characters, a couple that was the...

BARTOLI: Yes. It's a couple who has fears, but at the end, they hope that all the fears will disappear, and they will only enjoy life. And the chorus were - is there just to reassure us that everything is going to be fine.


SIEGEL: You know, Cecilia, the first time that I interviewed you here on the program, I think you were singing mostly Mozart at that time.

BARTOLI: Oh, wow.

SIEGEL: Yeah. And philistine that I am, I assume that you would move forward in time, and that you'd move up toward Verdi and up toward maybe Puccini at some way. Instead, you're going backwards in time. You like the older music. You...

BARTOLI: I do, and I like surprise.


SIEGEL: You like surprise. And the pull of the pre-Baroque is stronger on you than the pull of the late 19th century, yeah?

BARTOLI: Of course, I love music of 19th century, but also, we are coming from pre-Baroque. I mean, in order to have this beautiful music of Bellini and Verdi and Puccini but also all this great composer they're coming from somewhere. And I love to discover - I'm the Indiana Jones of classical...


BARTOLI: ...of Baroque music. No, I'm joking.


BARTOLI: But I do love to make discovery, and this is a great one, so...

SIEGEL: Well, one more piece from "Mission," this is the aria "Ogni Core Puo Sperar," "Every Heart Can Hope."


SIEGEL: What a beautiful song that is.

BARTOLI: Oh, yes.

SIEGEL: Before we hear your voice there, the music makes me wonder if Pachelbel heard this or if Steffani wrote it after Pachelbel, one or the other, it sounds awfully similar, this canon.

BARTOLI: Oh, this I can't tell you, but definitely, I think Steffani was very accurate the way he wrote the music for the instrument. And he's really a master of creating atmosphere, incredible atmosphere before an aria starts. So he was a genius (unintelligible). So I hope this project, of course, this recording, but also, I'm going to perform is music on stage, and I hope the people will get this.

SIEGEL: And will you be able to get a major opera house to stage an entire Steffani opera?

BARTOLI: Well, I hope so.


BARTOLI: I try. I try. What I can say then when I did my Vivaldi album in '99, at that time, Vivaldi was well-known but not as the opera composer of 18th century, the greatest. And, in fact, I did an album with only opera arias, and this was such a huge success then many singers and opera houses and they start to perform the music of Vivaldi and - to making records, you know, entire records of operas of Vivaldi. And they started to perform Vivaldi on stage, operas. So which I hope this was - my contribution helped on that so - and I hope the same with Steffani.

SIEGEL: Well, Cecilia Bartoli, thank you once again. It's always wonderful to hear you on the program, and thank you for the album "Mission."

BARTOLI: Thank you, Robert. It's my pleasure.


SIEGEL: You can hear the album "Mission" in its entirety on our website, nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.