I just spent a very pleasant couple of hours rekindling an old romance.
In 1996, Cecilia Bartoli, a beautiful Italian coloratura mezzo-soprano who spoke almost no English, appeared on David Letterman's show, singing Non piu mesta, the flashy, fireworks finale to Rossini's opera La Cenerentola. As was my habit at the time, I had taped the show to watch the next day, having no idea who the guests would be. When I saw the singer, I was blown away. I nearly wore out the tape watching it over and over and over again.
Despite a lifelong appreciation for classical music, I had never understood opera. I saw it as bizarre. Not only was it not beautiful, it was downright irritating, like listening to the soundtrack of a catfight.
The discovery of Cecilia made me start to question whether there was something I had been missing. Her appearance on Letterman started what has now been a 15-year love of an entire world of artistic endeavor that had previously eluded me. I started by buying three operas on CD (La Cenerentola, Carmen, and La Boheme) and listened to them while following the libretto translation. Most importantly, I enrolled in some adult-education classes about opera at the University of Minnesota. (As an employee and could take them for free.) The more I learned, the more I liked. Boheme in particular was an epiphany as to the intensity of emotion that could be conveyed through this art form as in no other. I found myself moved to tears by O suave fanciulla, then utterly devastated the first time I heard the final, desperate words before the curtain falls, "Mimi! Mimi!"
When I get interested in something, I have a habit of going whole-hog, full-immersion, obsessive-compulsive. So it was with opera. I went on a buying spree, and ended up with something like 70 boxed sets of opera recordings. I listened to them every spare minute. (Later, when I got seriously into competitive shooting, I must have been quite an odd sight, sitting in my basement making thousands of rounds of ammunition on my Dillon loading press with Pucini blaring from a boombox.) I bought season tickets to the Minnesota Opera. I even subscribed to Opera News magazine. Opera is unquestionably an acquired taste, and I just kept on acquiring it.
Through it all, Cecilia remained my favorite performer. I bought nearly everything she recorded, anticipated and taped every TV appearance. She made my heart go pit-a-pat. My wife at the time, fortunately, joined me in this illicit little love affair, saying that she would agree to bigamy if the second wife could be Cecilia. Sadly, we were never able to make that happen.
It all reached a climax in 1998 when my wife and I went to New York City on a pilgramage to the Met. They have special weekends just for out-of-town tourists, during which they put on four different productions in three days. One of them was Le Nozze di Figaro, starring Renee Fleming, Bryn Terfel (the world's most amazing baritone), and, yes, Cecilia. It was heavenly.
When I moved to Nevada, much of my stuff had to remain in Minnesota due to lack of space. That included most of my music. As a result, I got out of the opera-listening habit, and gradually my Cecilia crush faded away.
Today, though, something reminded me of it, and I went to YouTube and found clip after clip of her in various operatic roles and singing a variety of songs. I was transported back to when she had first enchanted me. There's somebody I love more these days, but Cecilia will always own a little piece of my heart--even if she never knows it.
Here she is doing the achingly sad aria Sposa son disprezzata from a Vivaldi opera (lyrics with translation here). If it sounds familiar, it may be because this recording was featured prominently in a couple of episodes of The Sopranos on HBO.
Here she is singing what may be the most beautiful melody Mozart ever wrote (which is really saying something), Laudate Dominum (with a bonus photo gallery of her lovely face and fetching eyes):
And for the only finale that would be fitting, here she is with what has become her signature piece, the dazzling aria that first caught my attention when she sang it for David Letterman: