Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" is one of the most popular pieces of music in the world. It's heard everywhere--on radio, aboard airplanes, in supermarkets, as background for television ads. There are scores of recordings, and the work has been arranged for ensembles of mandolins, guitars, synthesizers and more.
Even so, it's a shock--although a pleasant one--to hear a chorus singing the opening bars of "Spring" on Cecilia Bartoli's "The Vivaldi Album" (Decca), followed by the famed mezzo performing entirely unfamiliar music.
Later on the disc--which last week won Bartoli a Grammy Award for best vocal performance and is the basis of her concert tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--the well-known slipping and sliding music in "Winter" shows up, again as an introduction to something completely different.
What's going on?
Bartoli is simply drawing from the treasure trove of all-but-unknown Vivaldi operas, in which, in true 18th century fashion, the composer didn't hesitate to recycle his own music.
It's thought that he wrote more than 90 operas. At least 20 survive. But only one, "Giustino," has been published. Many of the rest exist only in original manuscripts. For the recording and the subsequent tour, Bartoli and musicologist Claudio Osele culled 13 arias from manuscripts they researched in the National Library in Turin, Italy.
"We found a lot of material," Bartoli said in a recent phone interview from Zurich, where she was preparing Mozart's "Don Giovanni."
"The choices are enormous. We decided to try to show the variety of this composer. We decided to do an aria with trumpet, one with strings, one with flutes, and so on.
"It was fantastic working with the manuscripts. You really have the impression of being so close to the composer."
Bartoli first became interested in Vivaldi during her student days at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, where she learned his "Stabat Mater" and other sacred pieces.
"I was curious to discover more things of Vivaldi. I was very impressed."
The rapturously received album (it has sold well over 400,000 copies, according to a recent Opera News) makes enormous vocal demands, from martial high notes to floridly embellished, spun-out lines to deep, concentrated laments. The composer often was writing for castrati, singers who established the first golden age of bel canto by commingling the lung capacity and power of a male adult with the high range and agility of an adolescent voice.
Bartoli must meet the same demands. On the disc, which was recorded over seven days in 1999, she could take time out for rests and retakes. Not so on tour. She will get only two breaks, when the musicians of Il Giardino Armonico, her disc and touring partners, play two instrumental pieces.
The music offers plenty of fireworks on its own--Bartoli doesn't exercise the Baroque prerogative of adding trills and other extras.
"Because the music is so rich in ornamentation, I decided to follow religiously the score as much as possible, to respect that," Bartoli said. "I added some appropriate embellishments, but only a few things. I wanted to show the beauty of this music as it is."
Reaching the technical heights was never the problem for her.
"The most difficult thing to do is find the right expression for the piece," she said. "To do that, you have to follow the text in connection with the music. Every word is important. If you believe the text, then you can be effective.
"You need a technique to sing Vivaldi, but not only technique. You need heart."
Heart, she feels, will also guide the singer to understand the psychology behind the da capo structure in 17th and 18th century opera--in which at the end of an aria the singer returns to the beginning and repeats the opening section.
"The repeat will help you [intensify] the mood of the piece," she said. "You will appreciate more what's going on the second time."
As for Vivaldi the recycler, Bartoli has no truck with critics who complain that the composer wrote only one concerto--but wrote it 500 times.
"If we say this about Vivaldi, we must say it of all the composers of the 18th century," she said. "Look at Handel, one of the most important composers of the time. If you go from opera to opera, you can find exactly the same arias for the same situation.
"That was the fashion of the time. If people are against that, they must be against it in general, not just one composer."
Bartoli hopes that the interest in Vivaldi that her work has stimulated will lead to a revival of his operas, just as Handel's operas have recently again become stage-worthy.
"He must come back to the stage," Bartoli said. "If other 18th century operas have been successful recently, there is no reason to keep this music in the library.
"People need to know more about his works. We must encourage other musicians to play the music of Vivaldi. It's, in a way, the responsibility of artists to bring the composers we like alive.
"I know after this recording and the tour a lot of people are calling the library in Turin to get more information about the music, the operas of Vivaldi. Something is moving. So something is happening. It's good."
Indeed, after winning the Grammy, she could feel she's already accomplished one of her goals for the composer.
"Viva Vivaldi!" she said. "Finally, this vocal music has crossed the Atlantic and keeps 'The Four Seasons' company."
* Cecilia Bartoli, with Il Giardino Armonico, led by Giovanni Antonini, tonight at 8, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $55-$85. (949) 553-2422.