Cecilia Bartoli has a passion for musical archaeology: "I am the Indiana Jones of classical," she says jokingly to All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.
Bartoli rummages through music history to uncover forgotten opera composers deserving of her detailed and dramatic performances. Her new album, Mission, introduces her most recent "find," the late-17th-century Italian Agostino Steffani.
Bartoli has also developed a taste for provocative album covers. On Mission, she's bald-headed and wild-eyed, dressed as a priest, brandishing a bejeweled cross. Steffani, it turns out, led a colorful life: Beyond writing florid vocal music, he became a priest, a diplomat and a political operative.
"Steffani actually is a quite mysterious composer," Bartoli says. "I always wanted to do music of a composer which was, let's say, a pre-Baroque project. He composed wonderful music and beautiful melodies — beautiful, rhythmic arias and energetic pieces full of fire."
Steffani and his music are little-known today, but Mission should go a long way toward changing that. Bartoli says that because Steffani was an Italian who spent most of his life in Germany, he never quite made his mark musically in either culture. Then there were his political pursuits.
"The diplomatic missions, at a certain point in his life, were more important, and he had to quit music," Bartoli says.
Most of the two dozen arias on the new album have never been recorded. Steffani, Bartoli says, "is a forgotten genius who's been overlooked for far too long."