Alexandra Coghlan

Why, if Cecilia Bartoli invites you to a party, you drop everything and go

Classical music has a few certainties: Götterdämmerung will always be that little bit longer than you remember, it will reliably rain if you pack a Glyndebourne picnic, and if Cecilia Bartoli invites you to a party, you drop everything and go.

Which is why I found myself in Paris earlier this week, along with most of the record industry, prepared for serious music and some even more serious thrills at the launch of Bartoli’s new disc St Petersburg.

There are times when only a palace will do. For most of us those times are few and far between, but if you’re mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli – ‘La Gioiosa’, a classical music phenomenon and one of its biggest-selling stars – then life, and art, are far from everyday.

But when your launch parties are already as legendary as your coloratura (and every bit as extravagant), how do you up the ante? By taking over the Palace of Versailles, of course, for an evening of music, food and audacious spectacle that the Sun King himself would salute.

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Bartoli’s latest album sees the mezzo don fur hat and jewels for a trip to 18th century St Petersburg. Previous discs have her gender-bending as a bald-headed monk (Mission), or flirting with the androgyny of the castrato (Sacrificium), but St Petersburg is all woman – women, in fact. For almost a century Russia was ruled by a triptych of tsaritsas, cosmopolitan creatures with as much interest in culture as politics. The result was an influx of Italian composers, imported to delight a court whose ears as well as eyes were turned towards Europe.

Theirs was a repertoire lost until Bartoli herself fought and cajoled her way (with a little help from Gergiev) into the Mariinsky Theatre library, emerging with 11 premiere recordings of music by Araia, Raupach and Manfredini that offer a keyhole glimpse on an extraordinary musical scene – one unlike any other, as Bartoli explained to me, ‘What is fascinating is the deep and melancholic style of this music, which isn’t really what you expect from Italian composers.

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