Cecilia Bartoli was made to sing Isabella. Rossini wrote L’italiana in Algeri 200 years ago, but he could have been thinking of her. She waited until she was 50 to sing the role, though having pushed her voice into the stratosphere with feats of extreme-singing in her Sacrificium programme [the castrati repertoire] she hindered her ability to return to such a low-laying part. But she has now. And she was magnificent.
The occasion came at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, which she directs. The production, by her favourites Moise Leise and Patrick Caurier, had a modern setting which was funny, witty and dramatically satisfying. They even managed to use the overture for dramatic action without it becoming trite: Mustafà (Peter Kálmán) with his outsized beer belly shuffles off to the loo, his wife Elvira — played by Rebeca Olvera, a fine-tuned actress — tries to rekindle his passion for her by wearing belly-dancers garb, and the camels in the picture above their bed become animated and hop and skip their love across the dunes. It is delightful and sets up the opera perfectly.
Bartoli, entering on a camel – what else – is the tourist who has been captured, along with her travelling companion (and older lover? She passes him off as her uncle) Taddeo, played adorably by Alessandro Corbelli. She is calmly resigned to her threatening situation which, in this case, is in an Algerian backstreet with ramshackle apartments – each supporting a grubby satellite dish – housing men with guns trafficking stolen electrical goods. An apprehensive Corbelli has clip-on sunglasses, sandals worn with socks, a money pouch around his waist, and sunburn though, delightfully, under his socks and hat his skin is a white as snow – a tourist cliché. He so beautifully underplays the part that the smallest heavenward look makes the audience laugh out loud. Anglo-Saxons do that; Italians, for example, don’t. Leise and Caurier, knowing their audience, might have toned down the gags during Bartoli’s Pensa alla Patria where the male chorus, dressed as the Azzurri (the Italian national football team), are being fed spaghetti by Isabella, which had the audience guffawing while Bartoli executed some of the most difficult coloratura passages ever written. Previously her Per lui che adoro was sung in the bath, her curves strategically covered in soapsuds, and she sang it to perfection, with the gags being kept to the musical interludes.
Bartoli’s interpretation was subtle, and here the leading lady was very much part of the team of singers. “O! Che muso” was sung as an amused aside, not underlined and overstressed as certain (wonderful) Isabellas have done in the past. In fact, all her recitatives were treated as a play script, without rolling eyes and wink-wink nudge-nudging, though of course the Bartoli personality was bubbling away throughout.
Less understated was Kálmán, though as a cardboard cut-out figure it was in keeping with his leering, unrefined – and in this version, criminal – character. He did have problems keeping up with some of Jean-Christophe Spinosi’s speed during the coloratura passages, but is to be commended for his courage to spend most of the opera walking around in ill-fitting underpants and vest.
Uruguayan tenor Edgardo Rocha, as Isabella’s love interest Lindoro, has a very fine voice indeed which he moves easily and rapidly, and it boasts an enviable easy, bright top. Scenically he was also convincing, eyes flashing from beneath his dreadlocks.
Christian Fenouillat’s realistic sets found fun everywhere, not least when the ship carrying Isabella to safety crashes through the scene with Isabella and Lindoro in Winslet-and-DiCaprio pose on the bow, creating the opera’s final image. Mention of the seagull flying past on a nylon thread, the remote-controlled chairs (moving the soloists around during the Act 1 finale, Confusi e stupidi), the chorus blowing smoke from hookahs in time with the music, the amplified recording of the call to prayer, the vacuum cleaner, the electric Venetian blinds, the full-scale car, and the rubber duck in the bath, may suggest that it’s gimmicky. It’s not, and only very occasionally do these fun bits of business disturb any musical aspect, and that is quickly forgiven. One glorious moment comes when the gang of chavs (Turks in bling) make Taddeo one of them, complete with shocking pink tracksuit, white baseball cap, and sparkly silver trainers. A ridiculous image carried off with great charm by Corbelli.
Salzburg’s L’italiana is fresh and fun and, above all, musically first-rate.