In a city where the Vienna State Opera ball is considered the climax of the carnival season and where the local news would lend itself to great libretti (were operetta still in fashion), it is not too surprising that music and theatre performances occasionally mirror the headlines. A Vienna Staatsoper revival of L’italiana in Algeri has coincided with the sentencing of a former Austrian minister and MEP following a “cash for laws” scandal. In both opera and the current political story, the male protagonist makes a fool out of himself and inspires much Schadenfreude – the well-known pleasure to see someone humiliated or outwitted which, as the Austrians say, is the meanest but purest of joys, and all the more so the greater the social rank of the person involved.

© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn

Rossini’s exotic turcheria was given in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s classic and witty production from 1987, which is a favourite not only in Vienna but also at the Metropolitan Opera and various other houses. The main casting attractions were Agnes Baltsa (Isabella) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (Mustafà, Bey of Algiers).

Baltsa has maintained an operatic career for some decades but is now past the point where she can make much vocal impression in such a role. How long a voice lasts may be a matter of caring for it, but a fresh sound past a certain age is also a gift nature spreads very sparingly, just like hair that never turns gray – the fact that Edita Gruberovà recently held the Viennese spellbound with a concert version of Anna Bolena doesn’t mean any great singer (which is how Baltsa will remain in everybody’s memory unless she stretches things too far) can do it. Her acting was as passionate as ever, the recitatives and the parlando always enjoyable, but singing stirring only in part. All in all, it wasn’t enough for more than friendly but very short applause from the otherwise loyal Viennese.

Furlanetto seemingly delighted in teasing the audience by making an entrance with ludicrously wobbly coloratura, only to demonstrate shortly after that this was his idea of buffo slapstick (his talents as a comedian are indeed in the same league as his singing). He was in very fine voice with a flexibility that belied his years, vocally and, judging by his dancing, physically too. He was greatly supported by Staatsoper ensemble veteran Alfred Šramek as Taddeo and these two mature gentlemen made Antonino Siragusa (Lindoro) sound a bit pale in comparison. He produced idiomatic coloratura and hit his high notes well, but the legato parts that the young Rossini leaves mercilessly exposed were much less convincing. The comprimario parts were exquisitely cast, with the ladies (Ileana Tonca as Mustafà’s wife Elvira, and Juliette Mars as her servant Zulma) singing ravishingly. Alessio Arduini made the most of his role as Mustafà’s servant Haly.

One would have retained an excellent impression of Jesús López-Cobos as a Rossini conductor, had not the difficult puzzle of soloists and all-male choir that is the Act I finale fallen to pieces and turned into an unintended musical example of the confusion that was being sung about. When these things happen, it is hard to tell whether sloppily cued entries are to blame or insufficient attention from the stage to the pit; but then again, the conductor has to make attention happen. At any rate, López-Cobos handled things professionally and brought everything back together as mysteriously as it had dissolved – as tricky as this is when accurately timed rhythms go wrong. Elsewhere his choice of tempi and textbook Rossini crescendo (there was special applause for the wonderful rendition of the overture) was impeccable.

Despite its flaws, this was an enjoyable evening and Rossini fans are already looking forward to the upcoming new production of La Cenerentola, again under the baton of López-Cobos.