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First Listen: Cecilia Bartoli, 'Sacrificium'

With more than eight million CDs sold, four Grammys and numerous Gold Disc awards, opera star Cecilia Bartoli could easily set her career on cruise control. But that's not the Bartoli way.

Instead, she enjoys playing the musical archaeologist, digging up long-forgotten operas associated with composers and artists far removed from the spotlight. Last year, she toured in her own makeshift museum on wheels: a converted 18-wheeler devoted to the career of the early-19th-century mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran, whose music she recorded and performed in concerts across Europe.

Bartoli's latest project is called Sacrificium. The theme of the new CD (released Oct. 27, with a 152-page study guide) is the "sacrifice" of thousands of pre-pubescent boys in the name of music. That is to say, those young boys in the 17th and 18th centuries who were castrated with the hopes of becoming one of the highly lauded opera stars of the time, now known as the castrati. By "nipping" puberty in the bud, as it were, the voice never "broke"; instead, it retained its high range and strengthened as the body grew to adult size.

For this project, Bartoli unearthed a dozen arias from composers overshadowed by Baroque-era heavy hitters such as George Frideric Handel, opting instead for such non-household names as Nicola Porpora, Francesco Araia, Antonio Caldara and Leonardo Vinci. Eleven arias on the new disc are world-premiere recordings.

As usual, Bartoli pours her heart and beautiful voice into the music, singing with tempestuous, rapid-fire fioriture one moment and languorous, long-breathed lines of melody the next.

"The age of the castratos was one of the most dazzling and remarkable in European music history," Bartoli says. "Seldom has there been such a complete fusion of sensuousness and splendor, form and content, poetry and music and, above all, such a perfection of vocal virtuosity, as was achieved in the glory days of the Baroque era."

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MusicWeekend Edition Saturday
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.