During the final decade of the twentieth century, Cecilia Bartoli emerged as perhaps the public's favorite concert singer, with no sign in the twenty-first that her singular mix of vocal pyrotechnics, physical attractiveness, intelligent musicianship, and audience seduction would decline. Only Luciano Pavarotti sold more discs for Decca in the same period. Bartoli has been winning awards globally every year since 1992. She sings opera, of course, but for only part of each season, and by choice in a limited number of congenial venues. Although Monte Carlo is her home, Zürich audiences are frequent beneficiaries of her operatic activity, where Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of the two most influential conductors in her career, regularly presides. She sang Cherubino in Mozart's Figaro there in 1989, officially the first year of her career, and later on, Susanna. She also sang her first Zerlina, then Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, and Fiordiligi in Così, not, from reports, a vocal triumph. But that feat means she has sung all three of the opera's women: Dorabella for the first time in 1990, and the maid Despina, her debut role at the Met, in 1996. Bartoli made her New York debut, however, in 1990 at a Mostly Mozart concert, returning in 1992 for three sold-out performances, followed by a U.S. tour. Her other Mozart roles include Cecilio in Lucio Silla, Idamante in Idomeneo, Sesto in La clemenza di Tito, and Sifare in Mitridate.
She made her U.S. opera debut at Houston in 1993 in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, the other most prominent composer in her stage career to date. Not counting the Shepherd Boy at age 9 in Tosca at Rome, where her father was a career chorister, or an appearance at Catania in 1987 — just a year after she began intensive vocal training under her mother — Rossini was initially predominant: La pietra del paragone in 1988, then La scala di seta at Pesaro, and The Barber at Ludwigsburg in 1989. She made her La Scala debut in 1991 as Isolier in Le comte Ory, and in 1992 added Angelina, (aka, La cenerentola), at Bologna. Otherwise, she has appeared in two Haydn operas, Armida and L'anima del filosofo — the latter at Vienna in 1995, and her debut role at London's Royal Opera in October 2001. The only other stage role to date has been Paisiello's Nina. Bartoli characterizes herself as "a child of the eighteenth century" — increasingly reflected in recordings that now include CDs of Vivaldi and early operatic arias by Gluck (issued as Dreams and Fables). Of the more than 20 releases by 2002, 10 have been operas, all by Mozart and Rossini. Although her mother remains Bartoli's only teacher (and traveling companion, as Renata Tebaldi's mother used to be), the Italian musicologist Claudio Osele became a valued consultant on the Vivaldi project.
Bartoli trained formally at Rome's Santa Cecilia Conservatory — choosing the trombone paradoxically, but then she also wanted to be a flamenco dancer before emerging as a coloratura mezzo with a high C. In recital, pianists have included Daniel Barenboim (who also conducted her first Berlioz's Nuits d'été), Myung-Whun Chung, and regularly since 1995, Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The question becomes, however, after half a lifetime of singing, quo vadit? Her on-stage slapstick in Rossini's operas (with L'italiana in Algeri still untried) does not befit the direction she is taking musically. But Bartoli has brains as well as charm, and celebrity once experienced is unslakable. Her album Sacrificium won a Grammy Award in 2011 for Best Classical Vocal Performance.