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 Recording of the Week, Cecilia Bartoli sparkles as Rossini's 'Italiana in Algeri'

Cecilia Bartoli making her debut in a mainstream Rossini role? In 2018? Do not adjust your set. Though it’s a good three decades since the coloratura mezzo extraordinaire first made her mark as the heroines of Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, she’s bided her time before taking on the third member of the triumvirate: unlike Rosina and Angelina, the feisty, feminist Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri is a woman of experience rather than a youthful ingénue, and in this contemporary staging from last year’s Salzburg Festival the Roman diva looks and sounds in her absolute prime.

Cruda sorteIsabella may not show up in Algiers until nearly half an hour into the opera (in this case perched atop a flatulent camel), but from then on she’s the driving-force of the entire show as she uses her feminine wiles to rescue her beloved Lindoro from the clutches of Mustafà, a blustering alpha-male with a neglected wife, a sizeable harem, and a convenient yen for the erotic novelty of an Italian woman. (The sexual and cultural politics of the opera don’t fare too well under a twenty-first-century microscope, but Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s witty, well-intentioned production does what it can to diffuse the work’s irreverent attitude to Islam by taking its cue from Mustafà’s bluff assertion that he follows his own laws rather than those of Muhammad).

Rossini composed Italiana aged just 21, a couple of years before meeting his own ‘Isabella’ (Colbran, a celebrated high mezzo who became his muse and wife), and the title-role lies significantly lower than his later heroines; after several years of Normas, Bartoli negotiates it with canny panache, judiciously ornamenting upwards where possible and deploying her chest register to great dramatic and often comic effect. She’s aided by the transparent, pleasantly astringent playing of Ensemble Matheus under Jean-Christophe Spinosi, who provide a whippy springboard for Bartoli’s many flights of coloratura rather than the fat cushions of sound which underpinned Marilyn Horne in the role at the Met in the 1980s. Ildar Abdrazakov is cheese to Bartoli’s chalk as her antagonist Mustafà, his handsome Verdian bass still nimble enough to tackle Rossini’s roulades and patter with clarity, and his comic timing pitch-perfect – the ‘Bey of Algiers’ is characterised here as a spivvy wheeler-dealer of ‘hooky gear’, more of a prosperous Del Trotter than an Omar Sharif, and Abdrazakov enters into the spirit with Carry-On-style gusto.

The other knock-out vocal performance comes courtesy of the Uruguayan tenor Edgardo Rocha as Isabella’s estranged Italian lover, portrayed here as a hapless pretty-boy stoner who seems to have been captured by Mustafà after getting out of his depth on a gap-year. Sporting a headband in the colours of the Italian flag and a garish tattoo of Isabella’s name on his bicep, we first encounter him ineffectively vacuuming the Bey’s apartment whilst lamenting his lost love and toking on a joint, but there’s nothing slack or unfocused about his singing: his sound’s rounder and more open than that of Juan Diego Flórez (still something of a benchmark in this repertoire), and he navigates the murderously high tessitura and coloratura of his opening aria with ease and expressiveness.

Cruda sorteThe show is quietly stolen, though, by veteran comic baritone Alessandro Corbelli as Taddeo, the ageing admirer whom Isabella enlists as chaperone for her Algerian escapade, and whose hangdog infatuation she exploits almost as much as she does Mustafà’s priapic lust. In a work that's almost relentlessly upbeat and exuberant, Corbelli balances comedy and pathos to perfection; there are shades of Malvolio’s yellow stockings as he’s stripped to his Superman Y-fronts (in which he gamely appears for the curtain-call) and forced into a fuchsia track-suit during his investiture as Mustafà’s ‘Kaimakan’, and his look of devastation as Isabella casually abandons him to sail off into the sunset with her Italian stallion in a tongue-in-cheek homage to James Cameron’s Titanic adds a bitter-sweet note to the happy ending.

It’s been well worth waiting for Bartoli to complete her trilogy of Rossini comic heroines on DVD, but this is no one-woman show – Italiana's a real ensemble-piece, and the entire cast is an absolute joy.

Cecilia Bartoli (Isabella), Edgardo Rocha (Lindoro), Ildar Abdrazakov (Mustafà), Alessandro Corbelli (Taddeo), Rebeca Olvera (Elvira), Rosa Bove (Zulma), José Coca Loza (Haly)

Ensemble Matheus, Jean-Christophe Spinosi, Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier

Available Format: 2 DVD Videos

Cecilia Bartoli (Isabella), Edgardo Rocha (Lindoro), Ildar Abdrazakov (Mustafà), Alessandro Corbelli (Taddeo), Rebeca Olvera (Elvira), Rosa Bove (Zulma), José Coca Loza (Haly)

Ensemble Matheus, Jean-Christophe Spinosi, Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier

Available Format: Blu-ray

Coming soon

Ildar Abdrazakov (bass), Orchestre Métropolitain, Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Ildar Abdrazakov's first solo album on Deutsche Grammophon is released next Friday, and includes arias and scenes from Nabucco, Oberto, Simon Boccanegra, Luisa Miller, I Vespri Siciliani, Ernani, Macbeth, Attila and Don Carlo.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC