Cast your minds back to the late ‘80’s and you’ll likely recall that Cecilia Bartoli had a particularly swift and spectacular rise from talented novice to opera superstar. You could even use the word “meteoric” without fear of hyperbole. 

Two strokes of incredible good fortune precipitated her ascension. First In 1987 she substituted for an ill colleague (Cecilia Gasdia?) on a televised concert marking the 10th anniversary of the death of La Divina Maria Callas which got her quite a bit of attention.

Not too long after that she was heard by record producer Christopher Raeburn of Decca Classical at a cattle call audition in Milan.  Raeburn, then at the end of his legendary career, knew real talent when he saw it. So having barely made her professional debut at the Arena di Verona (none of her biographies name the role so it must have been minor) she had already been signed to an exclusive deal with Decca shortly thereon. 

When she made her belated and much anticipated Metropolitan Opera debut at the age of 30 (in 1996)  she’d already well over a dozen video, recital, and opera recordings to her name.

I have them all. I fanboy’d pretty hard on Cecilia in the beginning. I adored her intense musicality, her crisp diction, and her zwischenfachen repertory which allowed her to sing ALL the Mozart roles. But really a lot of it was the anticipation of what was to come.

I mean imagine if she’s this extraordinary right out of the box as Rosina and Cenerentola what’s it going to be like down the road when the voice matures and she’s ready for Tancredi or Carmen or Dalila? I mean we knew it was never going to be Amneris but a boy can dream. 

But La Bartoli, as she’s referred to in the liner notes of this new release by our friends at Unitel, had other plans. She carefully, and cannily, curated her own career to the point where she wasn’t so much setting a concert program as excavating for it with pith helmet and pickaxe. She lost me sometime between Salieri and Vivaldi.

Oh I’d check in occasionally. I loved the Malibran album and I thought her Norma was probably a lot closer to what the composer heard in his day than some of the pachyderms we’re used to. But even in the Rossini repertorie I had hopes unfulfilled. Which was why I was so delighted at the announcement that she was finally going to tackle Isabella in Rosini’s L’Italiana in Algeri.    

L’Italiana was the first operatic comedy I listened to on record that made me laugh out loud and it and Tancredi have remained my most favorite of all of Rossini’s works. Even with its longueurs in the second act it has an absolute bounty of melody wedded to a truly funny libretto (that apparently was adapted from an earlier version).

L’Italiana’s appearance at the Salzburg Festival should be no surprise since La Bartoli has been the intendant of the Whitsun Festival extension at Salzburg since 2012. Like many a clever female impresario before her she’s now able to pick and choose her own projects with a rare impunity. Plus the coffers at Salzburg are apparently chock full judging from the amount of money that was lavished on this rather dreary production. But more of that anon.

We have longtime collaborateur and early music specialist Jean-Christophe Spinosi in the pit leading his very own Ensemble Matheus. He whips up a very spirited overture with all its joyous clanging in the percussion and unpredictable tempos. A piece that inevitably, and usually before I’m even aware, sets my feet to tapping.  Frankly for me the whole score makes it nearly impossible to sit still, especially when there’s this much joy in the music making. Humming along however, as I discovered the first time I saw it live, is frowned upon in the theater.

 Our stage directors are Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier whose Butterfly production at Covent Garden I recently suggested on these pages should be put into moth alls. It’s a lot more of the same here.

The staging is chock-full of ideas with precious few of them hitting their mark or worse adding up to a stylistic whole. The one big difference is that the floodgates have been opened on the Austrian treasury enabling the Msr.’s Leiser and Caurier to indulge their smallest theatrical whim and not always for the good.

I had a great opera theater teacher who was famous for saying, “Don’t show me your slip too soon.”. By that standard this production is “Winnie the Pooh-ing” all over the place (that is, no pants…sometimes literally!)

The overture is accompanied by an animated film of a libidinous camel in the desert trying to entice and entrap a mate. Focus then shifts to the bed below the screen where Elvira is trying to coax her husband Mustafa into a night of love using various enticements all of which are met with his displeasure and/or horror. 

The setting has been updated to a particularly dingy corner of modern Algiers. So kiss your glamorous fantasies of turbans, palaces, and harems goodbye. Instead we’re presented with a host of modern Middle Eastern stereotypes, glossy track suits, and hookahs galore. In fact the booklet refers to the directors not, “shy to work with oriental clichés, which they consciously employ.  I’m going to leave that right there.

When La Bartoli finally arrives it’s on a semi-mechanical camel that breaks wind during her accompanied recitativo. She’s a stranded Italian tourist and Mustafa is the ringleader of a group of black market thieves whose living room in scattered with flat-screen television boxes.

His wife Elivira is a woman of a certain age and Zulma is apparently now her mother. Their first duettino is spent on the phone with each other while Zulma plucks a chicken. 

Aside from the aforementioned flatulent dromedary, vacuum cleaners, toilets flushing,  the waving about of semi-automatic firearms and brassieres, plus Superman underwear on men old enough to know better are just a few of the sights and sounds now accompanying Maestro Rossini’s opus.

The two finales work the best with Act I ending with a hookah-induced, hallucinatory party which gets completely out of hand. I won’t ruin the surprise of Act II except to say it’s nice to see all that money finally put to good use. It wasn’t the jokes so much as the lack of timing that made me cringe. More so for the performers than myself honestly.

The Haly, Mustafa’s right hand man, is José Coca Loza and the young Bolivian Basso has a healthy sound and does much with the stage business he’s given. He gets to keep his spurious aria in the last act, ”Le femmine d’Italia”, which is accompanied by footage of the Trevi Fountain scene from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. I wanted to point out to someone that the only Italian in that scene is actually Marcello Mastoianni.

Edgardo Rocha, singing Lindoro, is a different matter. He’s sweet-toned but during both his arias is directed to flail himself about on the ground or later on a couch in spasms of amore. I don’t think it does much for his concentration and in repertoire like this it’s best not to try standing on your head while singing. I’d love to see what he could do in a production that was a tad less invasive on this technique. 

He’s got up in a wig of dread locks and grubby jeans vest wearing a t-shirt underneath that, if it was right side out, would read “Fuck this shit.” Not really noticeable except in close up when his shirt becomes louder than his voice.

The Zulma and Elvira, Rosa Bove and Rebecca Olvera, make a fine pair of foils. Olvera as the high soprano takes the honors and her fioratura is on point with exactly the kind of soubrette bloom on the top of the voice that you want for this part.  Meanwhile Bove is made up like Azucena took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and ended up in North Africa and she definitely holds up her side.

A blessing upon this cast is the great Alessandro Corbelli as Taddeo. The man is nothing less than a Rossinian con-artist at this point in his career. His attention to every detail of his performance is masked by his making it all seem as effortless as possible. His singing is excellent and his line readings and schtick are hilarious. At 67 years old he’s ripe and nearly walks away with the whole show.

The contribution of Ildar Abdrazakov is a little harder to pin down. Not one of nature’s born bel canto specialists, his first aria finds him rendering up some very spirited approximatura. By the finale of the act he’s singing with gusto and finally showing off rather than managing.

One of the funniest moments in the score is when Mustafa commands his men to have Taddeo impaled immediately upon meeting him. The line is literally smothered by La Bartoli’s formidable bosom when she’s pushes Mustafa’s head into her chest.

So the line is killed with a completely unnecessary sight gag that comes far too early in the development between the two characters; plus Bartoli only half commits to the gag.  By the time the ‘Pappataci’ bit rolls around Abdrazakov has spent a good part of the opera in a t-shirt and jockey briefs which, with his large fake belly and spindly legs, makes you want to laugh for all the wrong reasons.

La Bartoli is the reason we’re all here and I want to say that she doesn’t disappoint…much.  Isabella is perhaps the most liberated female in all of opera and if only for that the role fits like a glove.

At 53 the voice remains amazingly fresh and her vital connection to her audience undimmed. Her pointalistic vocalism, which sometimes involves too many aspirant H’s, hasn’t changed in the slightest. She’s managed the singular accomplishment of not allowing the voice to perceptively age. She’s kept it trim and lithe.

If you listen to the two arias she recorded on her first Rossini album it’s hard to even hear any change. She rarely decorates anywhere but “up”  and eschews almost all contralto options. Her ornaments can seem uninspired and unsurprising no matter which direction they go. Nonetheless she dispatched an array or trills, glissandos, and staccatos that would exhaust a mere mortal. The voice is still placed so far forward she seems cotton-nosed at times but her authority and style are absolute.

Picture and sound where near perfect on the blu-ray I watched and if you pump the bass up on your sound system it’s even better.

No extras, sadly.  Musically this performance is like a beautiful clock constantly shifting gears and chiming at prescribed intervals. Visually its colors are mostly drab until a spectacular finale that’s well worth the wait.

Oh and stay for the calls because the Austrians start clapping in unison and they repeat the finale (more joy).  I wish someone had schooled the directors on the fact that commedia dell’ arte doesn’t have to be smutty and stupid. Then again this is Salzburg so although it may be vulgar but it’s certainly not cheap.