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First Listen: Cecilia Bartoli, 'Sacrificium'

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Sometimes in art one has to make the ultimate sacrifice. "Sacrificium" is the title of a new album of opera arias by the Italian Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. She joins us now from the studios of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation in Zurich. Ms. Bartoli, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. CECILIA BARTOLI (Opera Singer): Hello, thank you, thank you. It's my pleasure.

SIMON: And we'll say this very carefully - this is an album of music written for castrati, young…

Ms. BARTOLI: Yeah.

SIMON: …men whose manhood was maimed so their singing voices wouldn't break.

Ms. BARTOLI: Yeah, castrati were the singers, the pop singers of 18th century. And most of this music is a part of the school, the Napolitano School, you know, and just to give you an example, one of the greatest castrati of the Napolitano School was Farinelli. And the teacher of Farinelli was Porpora, Nicola Porpora. And in this project we have a lot of music composed by Porpora himself, yes.

SIMON: I certainly don't mind telling you - it's, I think, clear from the liner notes that yourself think in the 21st century this is a pretty twisted idea. Why - who said, I know, we need a high singing voice, this is what we'll do? How did this come about?

Ms. BARTOLI: Well, this is a story about, as you mentioned, "Sacrificium," of thousands of boys. So the sacrifice of hundred of thousands of boys in the name of music. But in fact, most of these boys were coming from very poor family, of the south of Italy, you know, with 10, 12 children. One child was sacrificed on the name of music, because they were hoping then that these boys were making career and save the family from the poverty, you know. Because as I said before, so being a Caffarelli or Farinelli was like being a pop star, was like being Michael Jackson. You know what I mean? This really was a big, big business in 19th century. But of course probably it is the most cruel story in the history of music.

SIMON: Let's hear some of the music, because it is hauntingly beautiful.

Ms. BARTOLI: Yes.

(Soundbite of aria, "Parto, ti lascio")

Ms. BARTOLI: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: Now, of course, that's not castrati here, Castrato singing now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARTOLI: No, it's a good point, no. It's not a castrato. It's me. So, and I'm not a castrato. I'm a mezzo - lyric mezzo - I'm mezzo. But with a big passion for Baroque music and from…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARTOLI: …it's funny - and for especially for Porpora. So this was a music composed by Porpora, beautiful aria "Parto, ti lascio," and the opera is "Germanico in Germania."

SIMON: And if we could hear kind of another dimension of the music. This is, well, this is - that was hauntingly beautiful, this is kind of fast and furious.

(Soundbite of aria, "Cadro, Ma Qual Si Mira")

Ms. BARTOLI: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: Nobody else in the world, arguably, sings like you, but is this more difficult to sing than other pieces anyway?

Ms. BARTOLI: Well, this is - well, it's difficult, but it's clear then, if you want to perform this music, you need a lot of breadth control. And this was an aria composed by Francesco Araia, which is not really a well known composer. But he composed this piece. And the aria is "Cadro, Ma Qual Si Mira".

Castrati were men singing with a female voice, but the body was the body of a man. And this is, I think, is the challenge, I mean, for women to perform this repertoire, because of course we cannot really compare the capacity of oxygen in a lung, you know, that the women has compared to a man. So breath control is extremely important.

(Soundbite of aria, "Cadro, Ma Qual Si Mira")

Ms. BARTOLI: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: What fascinated you about the music? The music, the story, all of it?

Ms. BARTOLI: From one side you have the most beautiful probably music composed in 18th century. And from the other side you have the most cruel story of 18th century. So this is, I think, this cruelty and - beauty and cruelty in one project. You know, this is, I think it's extremely fascinating, yes. And it's a big discovering also because most of this music has never been recorded before.

SIMON: I'm want to listen here, if we could, to some more music. This, again, Nicola Porpora - startling, startling piece here.

(Soundbite of aria)

Ms. BARTOLI: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: Are you imitating a nightingale?

Ms. BARTOLI: Yes - a kind of a nightingale. You're right. Every good castrato had to sing at least - because castrato was asking a composer to compose an aria - and nightingale arias, yes. And the voice of a castrato, they really had an amazing technique also. So they had a possibility to sing in the very low register to the very high register and with an extreme flexibility in the voice, and they, of course, they had to also imitate all the beautiful instrument we have in natures, and birds and other instrument, too, yeah.

SIMON: You know, obviously what happened to castrate was cruel and indefensible. But I guess I don't want us to lose sight of the fact that they really were celebrated personages, weren't they? As you say, the rock stars of their day.

Ms. BARTOLI: Oh yeah, absolutely. So the one actually - the one who had the possibility to make a career, they really had amazing life. I mean, they really were pop stars, so (unintelligible) the name "Sacrificium," so the title of this recording is in order to remember the one - the castrati, they had no possibility to make a career, which were the majority.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. BARTOLI: You know, because in Italy they were castrating between 3,000, 4,000 boys every year, and only one or two of them they really had the big career, you know?

In fact, the one that they had the possibility to make a career, at least they had the satisfaction of success, of money and things like that. But of course they also - even themselves they had a very difficult life, you know? Because to be a castrato, so they were in one way loved by the society and in the other way they were rejected, because they were no men, no women. So it's really, really a tragic story. It's one - as I said before, glorious, you know, the tragedy and the glory, you know?

SIMON: Ms. Bartoli, thanks so much, very good talking to you.

Ms. BARTOLI: Oh, it's my pleasure.

(Soundbite of aria)

Ms. BARTOLI: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: Cecilia Bartoli's new release is called "Sacrificium." And you can see photos of Cecilia Bartoli and hear the new CD in its entirety - what a bargain - on our Web site, nprmusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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