First Listen

First Listen: Cecilia Bartoli, 'Mission'

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  • Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli immerses herself deeply in her recording projects — and not without a little humor. Here she is in costume for her new album Mission, which explores music by Agostino Steffani, a mysterious early Baroque composer.
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    Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli immerses herself deeply in her recording projects — and not without a little humor. Here she is in costume for her new album Mission, which explores music by Agostino Steffani, a mysterious early Baroque composer.
    Uli Weber/Courtesy of the artist
  • Bartoli as detective and subject. She says Steffani's music is the missing link between Monteverdi and the great composers of the Baroque such as Vivaldi, Handel and even Bach: "He is a forgotten genius who's been overlooked for far too long."
    Hide caption
    Bartoli as detective and subject. She says Steffani's music is the missing link between Monteverdi and the great composers of the Baroque such as Vivaldi, Handel and even Bach: "He is a forgotten genius who's been overlooked for far too long."
    Uli Weber/Courtesy of the artist
  • Bartoli's research on Steffani uncovered many mysteries. "He was an extremely gifted composer," she says, "but also led an equally successful European career as a diplomat, politician, priest and missionary."
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    Bartoli's research on Steffani uncovered many mysteries. "He was an extremely gifted composer," she says, "but also led an equally successful European career as a diplomat, politician, priest and missionary."
    Uli Weber/Courtesy of the artist
  • Steffani, Bartoli says, navigated seamlessly between nations, religions, courts and marriages: "He was involved in diplomatic intrigue, espionage and perhaps murder. Who knows?"
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    Steffani, Bartoli says, navigated seamlessly between nations, religions, courts and marriages: "He was involved in diplomatic intrigue, espionage and perhaps murder. Who knows?"
    Uli Weber/Courtesy of the artist
  • One of Steffani's first diplomatic missions (as an "envoy extraordinary") was to explore, and possibly influence, a marriage between two German nobles — Princess Sophie Charlotte of Hanover and Maximilian II, the elector of Bavaria.
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    One of Steffani's first diplomatic missions (as an "envoy extraordinary") was to explore, and possibly influence, a marriage between two German nobles — Princess Sophie Charlotte of Hanover and Maximilian II, the elector of Bavaria.
    Uli Weber/Courtesy of the artist
  • Throughout his diplomatic, political and ecclesiastical career, Steffani composed some 15 operas, 75 vocal duets and other instrumental works. Bartoli says he unjustly "falls through the cracks of music history."
    Hide caption
    Throughout his diplomatic, political and ecclesiastical career, Steffani composed some 15 operas, 75 vocal duets and other instrumental works. Bartoli says he unjustly "falls through the cracks of music history."
    Uli Weber/Courtesy of the artist
  • Steffani was ordained as a priest in 1680. Later, he became the Apostolic Vicar of Northern Germany and, at the request of the Pope, was tasked with trying to convert the northern lands to Catholicism.
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    Steffani was ordained as a priest in 1680. Later, he became the Apostolic Vicar of Northern Germany and, at the request of the Pope, was tasked with trying to convert the northern lands to Catholicism.
    Uli Weber/Courtesy of the artist

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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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First Listen