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CULTURE MONSTER

Cecilia Bartoli's 'Sacrificium' is tribute to Europe's classical past

The collection of 17th century opera arias written for gelded male singers is already a bestseller.

November 01, 2009|James Taylor

A high-pitched voice, questionable sexuality and ear-grabbing melodies -- the new Decca album "Sacrificium" may sound like a posthumous Michael Jackson collection; instead, it's a collection of 17th century opera arias written for castrati -- the gelded singers who were the superstars of the European music world for almost two centuries.

"Sacrificium" is hardly likely to reach "Thriller"-like global ubiquity, but Cecilia Bartoli, an Italian mezzo-soprano with a large following (not to mention obsessions and image control that recall the King of Pop), could take 11 previously unrecorded arias to the top of the classical charts -- and even find some crossover appeal. (One month before its release, "Sacrificium" was in the top 10 of Amazon.com's classical bestsellers.)

Reached by phone in Europe, the singer admitted that Jackson was on her mind: "After 300 years, we're still ready to sacrifice our bodies for beauty or what fashions dictates for us, and it got me thinking about the incredible talent of Michael Jackson. He was an amazing, amazing musician and talent and genius, really, of music. He was really also a victim of this, in a way. Mutilating himself -- what he did for his body, for the skin, for the nose."

Bartoli says that part of the reason she embarked on this project was the tragic nature of the castrati. "On the cover of my album, I wanted to show a strong image of a female voice in a male body," she says, referring to cover art of Bartoli's head atop crumbling male statuary, "I wanted to show in a clear image the combination of beauty and cruelty."

"Most of these young boys were coming from very, very poor families, which they already have 10 to 12 children," Bartoli says, again making a parallel with Jackson, "One would sacrifice, in the name of music, but in fact it was big business because if this boy was able to make a career he was considered a pop star and he was earning lots of money and he was the one who could have saved his family out of poverty."

She says that even the lucky few castrati who became stars suffered psychologically. Because of this, Bartoli says, their music contains more complex emotions: "Because every castrato had this psychological drama . . . they had the capability to translate the drama, their own drama in the music."

The plaintive numbers in "Sacrificium" are rich with pathos, but it's not a somber album. There are wildly frenzied songs such as "Chi temea Giove regnante," in which the Neapolitan composer Leonardo Vinci treats the human voice like Jimi Hendrix treated his electric guitar. Bartoli insists that their spirit lives on in today's rock stars. "This sexual ambiguity, the fact that they were changing from female characters to male characters, this, of course, for the audience had a strong erotic element to it."

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