La Cenerentola/Rossini Sacred Works, Salzburg Whitsun Festival – review

Cecilia Bartoli, artistic director and resident prima donna of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, made news last year with her first Norma. Now she reprises an early triumph, Rossini’s Cinderella, in a smart-looking production by Damiano Michieletto, toiling as clean-up girl in the family’s self-service restaurant. When the action moves to the palace, Paolo Fantin’s decor presents an ultra-chic version of what we have just seen, a metaphor of the opera’s theme of transformation. Michieletto, who includes a bevy of other girls eager to win the Prince Ramiro’s affection, saves his best gag till last, when Cinderella’s step-relatives and choristers are equipped with rubber gloves and plastic buckets glide down from above – former tools of her trade. The opera’s vein of sentiment is left largely untapped.

Bartoli’s performance is impeccable, but the other singers are mixed. Mexican tenor Javier Camarena comes into his own only after Ramiro sheds the disguise of his squire, Dandini, and sings his big aria, although Camarena’s penetrating interpolated high C hurt my ears. Nicola Alaimo does well as Dandini, but Enzo Capuano and Ugo Guagliardo are unremarkable as Don Magnifico and Alidoro.

Whenever Bartoli sings, she gives her colleagues a lesson in what singing is about, but at this career juncture – a chorus of “Happy Birthday” following the premiere marked her 48th – one longs for new repertoire rather than old (she obliges next year with Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride). Bartoli favours period instruments, but Jean-Christophe Spinosi and his thin-sounding Ensemble Matheus make a pale case for them in Rossini, even in the modestly sized Haus für Mozart.

Bartoli’s decision to devote the five days of this year’s festival to Rossini paid greater dividends with the rare treat of offering, in a single day, two choral masterpieces composed after he gave up writing operas. The Stabat Mater(1842) has a reputation as an opera in disguise, while people have quipped that the Petite Messe Solonnelle (1864) is neither little nor solemn. The masterly performances conducted by Antonio Pappano with forces from Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, demonstrated that these works are nothing to joke about.

Each demands and received an outstanding solo vocal quartet. Maria Agresta, Sonia Ganassi, Lawrence Brownlee and Erwin Schrott joined the Santa Cecilia chorus and orchestra in the Grosses Festspielhaus for the Stabat Mater. Pappano shaped frankly operatic moments with expressive purpose and gave maximum effect to Rossini’s gripping music for the more fearsome text passages. Parallels with Verdi were easy to draw since the performance was prefaced by a vibrant rendition, with Agresta, of the original version of the “Libera Me” from the later composer’s Requiem.

The Petite Messe, given in the Mozarteum, requires fewer performers but equals the Stabat Mater in artistic scope. Soloists were Brownlee again plus Eva Mei, Vesselina Kasarova and Michele Pertusi. Two pianos (Pappano and Pamela Bullock) plus harmonium supplant the orchestra. In harmonic and lyrical details the work reflects recent compositional trends and also shows striking originality, as in the piano’s gently contrapuntal Offertorium, smoothly played by Pappano. Like the Stabat Mater, it proved irresistible.

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