Cecilia Bartoli and the 2021 Whitsun Festival: Loving Eternal Rome

Whitsun or Whit Sunday is the name given to the Christian festival of Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s disciples. It is a time of celebration. Throughout history, various forms of festivities have been organized in its honor. 

In Salzburg, Maestro Herbert von Karajan established the Whitsun Concerts in 1973. In 1998, the program was taken over by the Salzburg Festival, and renamed the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. Since 2012, Italian superstar singer Cecilia Bartoli has been serving as the Festival’s artistic director, and her contract has been extended until 2026. Each year of her tenure, Bartoli stars in a fully staged production that is also performed during the summer Salzburg Festival.

Cecilia Bartoli renews her contract as the Whitsun Festival’s Artistic Director until 2026, with the Salzburg Festival leadership, from left to right: Artistic Director Markus Hinterhäuser, Festival President Dr. Helga Rabl-Stadler, and Executive Director Lukas Crepaz. (Photo by Marco Borrelli)

In 2020 it was with great sadness that Bartoli cancelled the Whitsun Festival, but this year she is returning in full force from May 21st to the 24th with a special program entitled ROMA ÆTERNA, dedicated to her native city of Rome. Some of today’s greatest artists have been invited to participate, including Robert Carsen, John Eliot Gardiner, Anja Harteros, Philippe Jaroussky, Jonas Kaufmann, Zubin Mehta, Mélissa Petit, Anna Prohaska, and Bryn Terfel. 

Bartoli has put together a magnificent program in honor of the Eternal City, the city of many identities that has always inspired writers, filmmakers, composers, painters, and that she, as a native, took for granted: “Rome is one of those places where dreams flow together: in our imagination, life is simple in Rome, the scenery wonderful, the population friendly and the food delicious. Its culture is breathtaking, its history palpable wherever we set foot. Rome’s splendor is revealed in the radiant buildings of marble and the dark green of its trees… Rome has always displayed this grandezza, and even in the 21st century we marvel at it in extravagant, epic films or the window displays on Via Veneto. Others, however, were transfixed by Rome’s black-and-white sides, a darker world we encounter in works by Fellini, Rossellini and Pasolini. When I was young, I was not aware of the particular fascination Rome has for visitors. For me, it was normal to walk my dog in the park of the Villa Doria Pamphilj, to drive my red Fiat Cinquecento around the Colosseum on my way to the Conservatoire, to pass an ancient aqueduct when my train left Termini station. I did not notice the pieces of white marble set into an ancient red-brick wall near my house. Nor did it cross my mind as a ten-year-old singing the shepherd in Tosca at the Rome Opera that each of the three acts was set in an actual building I had passed on my way to the theatre. Or rather, I had realized it but did not think of  it as anything unusual.”

Cecilia Bartoli and Saint Peter’s Square, view from the Dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City. (Photo by Ferdinando Scianna / Decca)

Bartoli’s realization of her hometown’s special allure, flourished when her singing career took her away from it for long periods of time and when she immersed herself deeper into the study of music and art. Some of her favorite composers such as Caldara, Handel, Mozart, Rossini were profoundly inspired by Rome. The singer became increasingly aware of being in constant contact with history in Rome, from opening Bellini’s autographed manuscript of Norma at the Santa Cecilia library, to meeting living members of the Pamphilj family to singing at a church in the Roman Forum, and becoming the first woman to work with the Sistine Chapel Choir. “I realized that what I had always taken for  granted was truly an enormous gift. Today I feel this heritage to be my responsibility, and would like to share it with the audience… It is a joy to be able to assemble my tenth program for the visitors of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival.”

The Festival will open on May 21st with George Frideric Handel’s first oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Disillusion) created in 1707 while the composer was in Rome during his tour of Italy. Usually performed in concert, on this occasion the oratorio will be staged by acclaimed director Robert Carsen who returns to direct in Salzburg after 17 years, much to Bartoli’s delight: “I value Robert Carsen’s intelligent approach, his profoundly musical way of directing, his delicate humorous allusions, and his aesthetics, which are classical and modern at the same time. I have no doubt  that Robert Carsen will surprise us with wonderful ideas – and I’m already looking forward to the rehearsals!” This will also be the production repeated at the summer Festival. On opening night, Maestro Gianluca Capuano will lead the Musiciens du Prince-Monaco orchestra, founded in 2016 at the initiative of Cecilia Bartoli who serves as its artistic director. The orchestra plays on historical instruments and focuses not only on baroque music but also on bel canto, unveiling new nuances of interpretation. Performing Bellini’s Norma in 2013 and Rossini’s Cenerentola in 2014 in Salzburg with historical instruments, brought a distinct dimension to “historically informed performance practice.”

Cecilia Bartoli (Photo by Uli Weber / Decca)

On May 22nd, a matinee performance entitled “Poema sinfonico” will feature works by Felix Mendelssohn and Ottorino Respighi, namely Respighi’s Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome). For Bartoli, this music invokes home as she grew up in the Monteverde quarter and spent time with her siblings in the resplendent nearby park, with its characteristic umbrella-like stone pines, of the Villa Doria Pamphilj. The evening of the 22nd will offer the first opera of the Festival: a concert version of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito whose plot is set in Rome.

On Whitsunday, May 23rd, a sacred concert entitled Dixit Dominus will take place at the Felsenreitschule and showcase works by Arcangelo Corelli, Handel, and Domenico Mazzocchi. Alessandro Scarlatti’s oratorio based on the Old Testament story of the first murder, Cain, overo il primo omicidio (Cain or the first homicide) will open the last day of the Festival, May 24, which will conclude with a popular favorite, another opera that takes place in Rome: Puccini’s Tosca. Aside from singing in the fully staged production of Handel’s first oratorio, Bartoli will also perform the role of Sesto in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and reprise the small offstage role of the Pastorello (the shepherd) in Puccini’s Tosca, her childhood debut role. 

The Festival program will be complemented by a gala dinner on May 23rd, created by Heinz Beck, one of the world’s most famous chefs, who runs the restaurant La Pergola in Rome, winner of three Michelin stars, as well as a film series entitled Roma Amor at DAS KINO, Salzburg’s film and cultural center. What could be a more inspiring addition to four days of superb music than cuisine and cinema? In Bartoli’s words, “classical music, and especially opera, touches upon many subjects: theatre, literature, music, history, even medicine and much more. The city of Rome also impresses us as one large entity where food, drink, culture and history merge in one great impression – and that is how I want the Whitsun program to impress the audience: the more perspectives we assume to observe a picture, the more interesting and profound are the experiences and insights we gain.”

(Acknowledgment: I would like to thank the Salzburg Festival Press Office for facilitating my access to the Whitsun Festival information and to Ms. Bartoli’s comments.)

Information about the 2021 Salzburg Whitsun Festival program and tickets is available here.

Discover more about Cecilia Bartoli on her website.

Top photo of Cecilia Bartoli copyright Decca_Uli Weber

About Maria-Cristina Necula (184 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and the collection of poems "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have been featured in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Opera America," "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center, CUNY. In 2022, Maria-Cristina was awarded a New York Press Club Award in the Critical Arts Review category for her review of Matthew Aucoin's "Eurydice" at the Metropolitan Opera, published on Woman Around Town. She is a 2022-24 Fellow of The Writers' Institute at The Graduate Center.