Recording of the Week,
The forgotten Maria
When I first saw the sales notes for Cecilia Bartoli's new album I admit I had absolutely no idea who the 'Maria' emblazoned all over the cover was actually referring to. I thought surely it can't be a tribute to the great Maria Callas on the 30th anniversary of the Greek diva's death. Even more unlikely was a take on Bernstein's famous character from West Side Story (in the news at the moment as believe it or not it has just reached its 50th anniversary). So I read on with keen interest...
Soon I came across the name Maria Malibran, now almost completely forgotten who was actually one of the most famous opera singers of the 19th century. She worked closely with the likes of Rossini and Bellini, and was hugely admired by Chopin, Mendelssohn and Liszt and all this despite the fact that she died at the age of just 28.
Cecilia Bartoli, now in her forties, shot to fame about twenty years ago singing and recording the roles of Rossini. But since then she has become much more associated with Baroque and lesser known Classical Composers, and so for her this is a return to the Bel canto repertoire where she started.
Born in 1808, Malibran lived through the Bel canto era, (typified by the operas of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti). When you think of great bel canto singers on record you probably think of Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé, so would any of these have sounded like Malibran? Well no, probably not. It is worth remembering that Malibran would have grown up studying Baroque and Classical repertoire and it is likely that Rossini and Bellini had this sort of voice and that style of performance in mind rather than the much louder, declamatory and romantic performance style you associate with the great names mentioned above.
Bartoli then, who has spent the last twenty years submerged in earlier music, has a keen interest in the musicological performance practice ethic, and an astonishingly flexible voice, with both rich contralto notes and dancing top notes, might just be closer to Malibran (and therefore the sound that Rossini and Bellini had in mind) than anyone else since.