This year, the Salzburg Whitsun Festival presents a number of artistic masterpieces that share a Scottish theme. In this context, La donna del lago by Rossini, based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, was a natural choice for artistic director Cecilia Bartoli, a world-class Rossini singer. The plot is set in the Scottish Highlands in the sixteenth century during the wars between the rebellious Northern Clans and King James V of Scotland.

The opera was presented in concert form, with a cast constituted mostly by singers of the other opera performed at the Whitsun Festival: Ariodante. The performance had less of the semi-staged flavour which Bartoli usually gives to her concert operas. The singers interacted only minimally with each other, and almost all of them were reading from the score. There was only one slapstick routine: when Elena and Uberto leave in her boat, Bartoli and Rocha walked away pretending to row.

Gianluca Capuano led the orchestra Les Musiciens du Prince on period instruments with energy and engagement. Rossini on original instruments can sound dry, leaving a feeling of fatigue for us used to hearing it played by a modern orchestra. Capuano did a good job enlivening the performance with well-executed dynamics and highlights of the wind instruments. Some of the tempi, however, were too fast, resulting in a rushed, hurried delivery. While this highlighted the dramatic effect, it gave a feeling of an incorrect interpretation of Rossini's music.

Cecilia Bartoli debuted in the role of Elena, and she mastered it, as she has with every other Rossini role she has tackled. She gave us a performance perfectly adherent to the Rossini style, supported by a flawless technique. Maybe because of her lack of familiarity with the role, she kept her “Bartolisms” at a minimum, which perhaps disappointed some of her fans. The result was a masterclass in bel canto: a thoughtful, inspired interpretation of the character of Elena, which she inhabited and managed to enliven for us. As usual, her coloratura was hard to believe, a level of perfection that borders on superhuman.

Tenor Edgardo Rocha, as Uberto/Giacomo, portrayed the disguised King of Scotland with authority and confidence. His high notes were beautiful and easy, and the coloratura brilliant and secure. The voice itself had a colour which didn’t always shine convincingly, but the technique and the style were always engaging. The initial duet with Bartoli was one of the best parts of the show: they really showed chemistry and the result was quite enjoyable.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast was not up to par. Norman Reinhardt, as Rodrigo, did his best in a truly difficult role. To his credit, he had the high notes that the part requires and sang his first (fiendishly hard) aria with commitment. He did not convince as a Rossini singer, however: the coloratura was cumbersome in places, and the accent was not always the right one. He seemed to be struggling at times, albeit one must appreciate the honest effort. Nevertheless, the beautiful, famous trio of the second act was enjoyable: the “high C” duel with Rocha was convincing, his voice contributing, together with Rocha’s and Bartoli’s, to an exciting ensemble.

Vivica Genaux disappointed as Malcolm. A baroque specialist, her voice features a very peculiar timbre. It had a tendency to become nasal, especially in the higher register. She had a fast and agile coloratura, but it was not always pleasant. Indeed, it occasionally sounded unnatural and tight, and her tendency to tremble her lips in sync with her vibrato and melismas indicated that her technique was not in its best form. Other features of her performance including legato, phrasing and elegance, were, frankly, lacking. I cannot imagine her as a Rossini singer.

The bass Nathan Berg, as the King of Scotland, showed little sense of elegance or style. His voice is probably a bit too weighty for Rossini, but it was the heavy-handed delivery that was disappointing. He had a tendency to shout; there was not a trace of subtlety, no sign of lightness.

An honourable mention to the "minor" roles is necessary. Laura Verena Incko (Albina), Reinaldo Macias (Serano), and Daniel Giulianini (Bertram) all did their best with the small parts they have in the opera and came through with a pleasant delivery.

The concert was, overall, a success with the Salzburg audience. At the end, the orchestra celebrated Cecilia Bartoli's birthday by playing tunes from La donna del lago, which all mysteriously turned into Happy Birthday to you, in which the whole audience joined the chorus and sang to her. It was a fun, lively moment in an otherwise somewhat disappointing concert.