A muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. Elvira fails to arouse Mustafà’s desires while an animated ballet about an amorous camel cavorts in the picture frame above their marital bed. When her belly-dancing flops, the dejected Elvira stuffs her face with Turkish delight. This is only the overture, but it’s already clear that Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier are going to have a lot of fun with L'italiana in Algeri. And why not? Rossini’s operatic farce is gloriously silly. Packed with zinging tunes, it’s a gift to the talented cast at the Salzburg Festival, headed by the great Cecilia Bartoli.

José Coca Loza (Haly), Cecilia Bartoli (Isabella) and Alessandro Corbelli (Taddeo) © Monika Rittershaus
José Coca Loza (Haly), Cecilia Bartoli (Isabella) and Alessandro Corbelli (Taddeo)
© Monika Rittershaus

Like Mozart’s Entführung, directors can seem embarrassed by the plot of L'italiana, uncomfortable about presenting a Muslim as a comedy figure. In the programme booklet, Leiser argues the opera is really about the ridiculous things people do when under “the spell of desire”. He and Caurier don’t shirk from setting events in modern-day Algiers, but turn Mustafà from a Bey into a dodgy dealer chasing a bit of Italian skirt and getting his comeuppance. He’s not the only one. Taddeo masquerades as Isabella’s “uncle” on their sojourn to find her Lindoro, but is convinced it’s him she really loves. The opera is a study in thwarted desire.

A street in Algiers mixes the old with the new: a goatherd ushers his charges past a façade peppered with satellite dishes; washing hangs from the balconies; Isabella makes her not so grand entrance on a flatulent camel. Leiser and Caurier are frequent Bartoli collaborators. Together they created Rossini’s “return match” Il turco in Italia at Covent Garden (2005) and this production shares the same spirit. Where Selim arrived there posing on his luxury yacht, here Isabella and her lover escape via cruise liner, along with Taddeo and Mustafà’s Italian slaves (dressed in national football team kit). Bartoli and Edgardo Rocha’s Lindoro even pulled a cheeky Titanic pose at the prow. One or two goats have even clambered onto the deck. Big grins all round. 

Edgardo Rocha (Lindoro) and Cecilia Bartoli (Isabella) © Monika Rittershaus
Edgardo Rocha (Lindoro) and Cecilia Bartoli (Isabella)
© Monika Rittershaus

Everything is slickly choreographed. It helps that Mustafà and Taddeo are played by singers who enjoy a great sense of comic timing. Ildar Abdrazakov’s leering Mustafà waddles around in his underwear, eyes goggling when he spies Isabella taking a bath. On opening night, the Russian bass was in rich voice, yet still able to pull off patter at speed. Alessandro Corbelli has a long relationship with this opera, singing Haly in the famous Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production at the Wiener Staatsoper when it opened way back in 1987. He is the master of the double-take and his Taddeo is full of Italianate bluster, yet he’s also a sympathetic character – let’s not forget that Isabella exploits him emotionally, leading on the older man when it suits her purpose. Paraded in a pink tracksuit and Superman Y-fronts when honoured as “Kaimakan”, Corbelli’s Taddeo cuts a hangdog figure.

Ildar Abdrazakov (Mustafà) and Cecilia Bartoli (Isabella) © Ruth Walz
Ildar Abdrazakov (Mustafà) and Cecilia Bartoli (Isabella)
© Ruth Walz

Bartoli’s Isabella is an emancipated woman, deftly manipulating men to do her bidding. Even the prospect of being sold as a sex slave doesn’t cause her to bat an eyelash: “I’m not going to let it get me down!” she shrugs. Bartoli’s mezzo is still in great shape – a little veiled at the top and with that familiar breathy quality – but her lower register (and Isabella sits low) is fruitily ripe and she fires off the coloratura as easily as blowing the froth off a cappuccino. A masterclass in Rossini singing.

Edgardo Rocha’s Lindoro was mellifluous, his light tenor scaling the heights with ease. Rebeca Olvera’s perky soprano makes much of Elvira, who eventually wins back her husband’s affections, and José Coca Loza’s Haly impressed in his brief aria praising Italian women, set before video footage of Anita Ekberg frollicking in the Trevi Fountain in Fellini’s La dolce vita.

José Coca Loza (Haly) © Bernd Uhlig
José Coca Loza (Haly)
© Bernd Uhlig

In the pit, Jean-Christophe Spinosi’s angular conducting encouraged aggressive period playing from his Ensemble Matheus, parched string colour and spiky attacks eventually relaxing into the warm Italian sunshine of the score. Salzburg’s Haus für Mozart was temporarily transformed into the Casa per Rossini. 

*****