Anyone playing word association game with an opera buff should say Salzburg only to get the immediate response: Mozart. Indeed, in this Austrian city, where the great composer was born, everything is associated with Mozart, from his home, to the many souvenirs carrying his picture, and, of course, the Mozartkugeln, those chocolate balls named after him.
Therefore, you can understand my surprise when I heard that in the city of Mozart, the Salzburg Opera Festival was planning to run a mini festival dedicated to no other than… Rossini. And my surprise turned into an enthusiasm when I heard that this exciting idea was the brainchild of my favorite opera singer, Cecilia Bartoli.
The one and only: Cecilia Bartoli. Photo: Silvia Lelli.
Bartoli followed in the footsteps of Herbert von Karajan and Riccardo Muti when in 2012 she became the first woman to be appointed artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. Immediately, she proved that she was more than a great opera singer, but also a charismatic leader, able to attract stellar roster of musicians to participate in her festivals. In 2012 the theme of her festival was “Cleopatra”, with Bartoli herself singing this role in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. In 2013 her festival was called “Sacrifice – Opfer – Victim”, with a new staging of Norma as its focus. This year she stunned us with Rossinisimo.
Bartoli as Cenerentola (cinderella). Photo: Silvia Lelli
Probably sensing that some people might raise their eyebrows, Bartoli explained the Mozart-Rossini linkage by citing a greeting Rossini once sent to a fried, with the following advice: “Look on him with astonishment; listen to him with devotion; you will find no one in this world who can be compared to him. Gioachino Rossini, Mozart’s constant admirer”.
While I fully agree with this tribute, I’m also an admirer of Mozart’s admirer. And no one could have showcased Rossini in Salzburg better than Cecilia Bartoli. Not only had she practiced a hands-on artistic directorship, but she also was the heroine in two of Rossini’s operas, so different from each other, Angelina in La Cenerentola and Desdemona in Otello.
Rossini’s Otello differs from Verdi’s opera in two main points: There is no love scene there between Otello and Desdemona; we meet them already secretly married, and the plot jumps straight away into jealousy and death. And in Rossini’s work, Otello’s skin color is highlighted, which gives more significance to racist themes. Yet Desdemona, the tragic heroine in both operas, who is crushed under social pressure and becomes a victim of terrible jealousy, attracts the most attention, and Bartoli sang and played the role with great sensitivity and beauty.
Only a versatile singer like Bartoli could have stormed the stage again after few days, singing and playing the totally different role of Cenerentola (Cinderella). Staged in a modern diner, where Cenerentola, her stepfather and two stepsisters live on the upper floor, this was one of the charming Cenerentolas I have ever seen. Bartoli commanded the impossible musical challenges Rossini put in front of his mezzosoprano singers with amazing agility. And she was matched by Javier Camarena, who sang Ramiro, the prince who falls in love with her. Mark the name of this rising young Mexican tenor: No wonder he joined the ranks of Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego Florez to become the third singer in seventy years to perform an encore during a performance in the Metropolitan Opera, when he was obliged to repeat Ramiro’s aria “Si, ritrovarla io guiro” (Yes, I’ll return, I swear).
After moving to Paris in 1829 and having his Guillaume Tell performed at the Opéra, Rossini dedicated the rest of his four decades to musical gatherings at his house and to frequenting the best restaurants in town. Luckily for us, he didn’t retire completely, and his Stabat Mater, in my opinion, is one of the greatest sacred music pieces ever written. In Salzburg, under the baton of Antonio Papano, the the Orchestra and Chorus of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia performed musical miracles.
Bartoli brought her festival to an astounding peak, with a Great Rossini Gala, featuring great veteran singers like Jose Carreras, Ruggero Raimondi and alessandro Corbelli, alongside with the front row of today’s singers like Juan Diego Florez and Vesselina Kasarova.
Let’s hope that the dust settles soon in our troublesome area. If and when it does, and you feel like treating yourselves to a special soul lifting experience, go to the summer festival in Salzburg. Mozart is there, of course, with Don Giovanni, and his admirer Rossini is there as well, with La Cenerentola, and with Cecilia Bartoli again in the title role. You don’t want to miss it.
The Diva. Already planning the next Festival. Photo: Alberto Venzago.
The Salzburg Festival runs till 31 August, 2014; www.salzburgerfestspiele.at.