When Cecilia Bartoli shot to fame in the early 1990s, it was very much as a Rossini specialist. The bubbly mezzo-soprano appeared in a documentary, bustling around her native Rome and enchanting the television audience with her dazzling singing. Her natural artistic curiosity has led her to Baroque and bel canto repertoire, but she has wisely shied away from bigger roles and larger stages. It’s as a Rossini specialist that Bartoli’s reputation still rests. Since 2012, Bartoli has been the artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival and this year Rossini is very much her focus.

Cecilia Bartoli
© Uli Weber | Decca Classics

After the première of Guillaume Tell in 1829, Rossini withdrew from composing at the grand old age of just 37. He wrote occasional piano works and songs – his Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age) – but no further operas were to flow from his pen. Rossini died in 1868 and Bartoli marks the 150th anniversary of his death by starring in a new production of L’italiana in Algeri. She also takes the year of 1868 as a theme for the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, programming works which illustrate the musical world Rossini left behind.

L’italiana finds Bartoli playing Isabella, the feisty Italian girl of the title who heads to Algiers to rescue her lover, Lindoro, who is serving as a slave to the Bey. Isabella is not to be messed with and manages to outwit the hopeless Mustafà and engineer an escape back to Italy. Bartoli is reunited with frequent collaborators Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier for this new production. Previously, they have worked together on Giulio Cesare, Norma, Iphigénie en Tauride, Rossini’s Otello and Il turco in Italia. The latter production – the flip side of L’italiana’s coin – was enormous fun painted in bold primary colours, so expect the directorial duo to play up the ridiculousness of the plot, especially when the Bey is duped into wearing an outlandish costume and swearing an oath of eating, drinking and keeping silent.

© Tourismus Salzburg

One of Bartoli’s great roles was Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia. Javier Camarena’s aria recital is both an homage to the great Spanish tenor Manuel Rodríguez García who created the role of Almaviva in Barbiere. García was father of two famous singers, Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot. He was also a composer of light operas and Camarena’s recital pairs García’s own music with some of Rossini’s more famous tenor fireworks including arias from Barbiere and La Cenerentola. Camarena often garners rave reviews, most recently as Idreno in Rossini’s Semiramide at The Metropolitan Opera where our reviewer praised his “matchless agility... bright tone, and gravity-defying top notes”.

Comic opera was still alive and kicking in 1868, when La Périchole, Offenbach’s opéra bouffe, premiered at the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris. Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, most famous as librettists for Bizet’s Carmen, based their text on the one act play Le carrosse du Saint-Sacrement by Prosper Mérimée (author of the Carmen novella). La Périchole – a Peruvian street-singer (based on the real-life Micaela Villegas) – and her lover Piquillo are too poor to afford a marriage licence, while the viceroy Don Andrès de Ribeira lusts after her and attempts to make her his mistress. Mistaken identity, an accidental marriage and a prison escape are all set to Offenbach’s irresistible score which fizzes along merrily. Marc Minkowski, who has a fine pedigree in Offenbach, conducts Les Musiciens du Louvre in this concert performance, with a young cast led by Aude Extrémo and Benjamin Bernheim.

© Tourismus Salzburg

Three other festival concerts have links to works composed around 1868. Jérémie Rhorer conducts Anton Bruckner’s motet Pange lingua, composed the year Rossini died, followed by Johannes Brahms’ German Requiem of 1869. At Cecilia Bartoli’s special request, the piano part in this two-piano arrangement will be played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Markus Hinterhäuser, artistic director of the Salzburg Festival. Daniel Barenboim conducts his Staatskapelle Berlin in a morning concert containing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor (composed in 1868) and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.1 “Winter Daydreams” (from 1866). Maxim Vengerov performs a recital with Camerata Salzburg that opens with Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor (1868) and includes some Saint-Saëns bonbons and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.

Rossini and Wagner were famously very rude about each other’s music. Rossini once quipped “One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don’t intend to hear it a second time!” Wagner, in return, responded with “After Rossini dies, who will there be to promote his music?” The two men met in Paris in 1860 and there was a grudging admiration for each other, so perhaps Daniel Barenboim’s closing gala could signal an uneasy truce. Wagner had been particularly impressed by Rossini’s Otello so it’s appropriate that the programme opens with excerpts from Act 3 of this opera (featuring Bartoli’s Desdemona alongside Rolando Villazón’s Moor) and is followed by Wagner, featuring Jonas Kaufmann singing excerpts from Die Meistersinger and the orchestral Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Now that’s a pretty sublime way to close a festival.

Click here for the full Salzburg Whitsun Festival listings. 


Preview sponsored by the Salzburg Festival