Alexander Pereira’s inspired idea to give Cecilia Bartoli carte blanche as ‘künstlerische Leiterin’ brought a welcome focus to this year’s salzburg whitsun festival. Pereira and Bartoli are buddies from the new Salzburg Intendant’s previous place of work in Zurich, and, in the haus für mozart, he has a theatre of comparable size to showcase Bartoli’s operatic talents. The Italian mezzo’s festival theme—Cleopatra: Between Power and Love—gave her the opportunity to reprise her acclaimed portrait of Handel’s sex-kitten heroine in Giulio Cesare, which she had first tackled in Zurich, and to arrange around it a collection of other composers’ depictions of the fabled Egyptian queen: Massenet’s, in a complete concert performance starring Sophie Koch; Berlioz’s, his scène lyrique sung by Vesselina Kasarova in an Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique concert conducted by John Eliot Gardiner; and Shchedrin’s, his scena, commissioned by the festival for Anna Netrebko, Valery Gergiev and the Maryinsky Orchestra, was sung by Mojca Erdmann when Netrebko withdrew at the last minute. To make up for disappointment, Bartoli added a couple of Mozart arias to Gergiev’s programme and sang them herself. In addition to her two scheduled appearances in Cesare—there are a further five more on offer at the the summer festival this month—she surveyed Baroque-operatic portraits of Cleopatra in an entertaining concert with Giovanni Antonino and his Il Giardino Armonico ensemble, comprising no fewer than 17 numbers by Italian and German near-contemporaries of Handel, including Hasse and Graun (May 26). You can’t accuse Bartoli of stinting her audiences, and even though she hadn’t learned all of the programme by heart (it was a one-off, presumably, tailor-made for the festival), she threw herself, heart, body and soul, into everything she sang.
These days, however, she can sound a mannered and calculating Handelian, which was especially so in ‘Se pieta’ and ‘Piangerò’, both of which she stretched out to agonizing lengths in her pursuit of expressive intensity. But her star quality remains undeniable, and she was clearly game for any of the numerous daft ideas that her directors, Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, threw at her, singing ‘V’adoro pupille’ astride a flying missile wearing a frizzy cheerleader’s wig, for example. Initially, it looked as if the French-Israeli duo intended to stage Handel’s masterpiece as an up-to-the-minute docu-drama about the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’, but it soon degenerated into a muddled Carry-on-Cleo Regietheater romp with a few tastelessly explicit episodes. The spectacle of Christophe Dumaux’s wheezy, scratchy Tolomeo relieving himself over a girlie mag during ‘Belle dee’ got up the audience’s nose on May 27—they booed the scene, but not the singer when he took his solo curtain at the end. Bartoli managed to rise above it all with her spellbinding singing and shone despite her illustrious co-stars. Andreas Scholl as Cesare (more Clark Kent than Superman) and Anne Sofie von Otter’s grave and serious Cornelia were the best of them, though the audience loved Philippe Jaroussky’s superannuated choirboy Sesto, along with Dumaux’s Tolomeo. It proved a long evening, thanks both to the edition used—as ‘complete’ a text as I have heard in the theatre, which included the 1725 aria for Nireno, here played, tiresomely, in drag by Dominque Visse—and to Antonini’s super-fast and super-slow tempos, which somehow disrupted dramatic continuity and made for an evening of Wagnerian length: five minutes shy of five hours with two short intervals. At the end Caurier and Leiser further enraged the audience by opening the back doors of the stage to reveal a German (!) tank and troops apparently invading contemporary Salzburg. Talk about tactlessness!
Earlier the same day, I attended the Massenet Cléopâtre, the composer’s last opera, posthumously premiered 100 years ago, which sounds like a Samson et Dalila without
dramatic teeth: exotic and sexy, but decadently so. Or at least it sounded toothless in Vladimir Fedoseyev’s unidiomatic conducting of the Mozarteum Orchestra. But to hear French singers in the leading roles—Koch, and Ludovic Tézier as Marc-Antoine—and in most of the supporting roles (including Sandrine Piau, no less, as Octavie) proved a rare Massenetian treat and vindicated Bartoli’s seriousness as artistic director.