A dramatic, dizzyingly extravagant mix of orchestral pop, flamenco, tango, bolero, disco, ranchera, chachacha and even rap, recorded with dozens of musicians, Isabel Pantoja's new album of Juan Gabriel songs, produced by Gabriel before Pantoja entered in prison in 2014, is a flashy post-incarceration comeback for the Spanish star. Not that her fans would of expected anything else from the torch singer, who is as known from the pages of gossip magazines as she is for her theatrical singing.
"I'm still here!" Pantoja declared at a Nov. 10 concert held on the eve of the album release in Aranjuez, Spain, near Madrid. Gabriel, her friend and soulmate when it came to onstage flamboyance, passed away in August, after gifting Pantoja the last new songs of his storied career.
Pantoja's heart doesn't leave her throat as she expertly wrings out the dozen songs on the album for maximum effect. They include three previously unreleased Gabriel tunes, plus hits by the Mexican idol like "Hasta Que Te Conoci" and "Abrazame Muy Fuerte." The fantastically kitschy "Debo Hacerlo," with a rap interlude delivered by Pantoja's son Kiko Rivera, sounds like it could have come from the soundtrack of an Almodovar movie.
Now 60, Pantoja has been a household name in Spain and by extension Latin America since the 1970s, and she sticks to a retro romantic formula on an album made for her own devotees and Gabriel's many followers, as well as for those nostalgic for the kind of cocktail-hour standards recorded by Eydie Gorme and Julio Iglesias' classic Latin pop.
At the concert in Aranjuez, a teary Pantoja was met with shouts of "olé!" as she presented songs from the album before members of the press and guests of her label, Universal Music Spain. Newspaper reviews noted her "surpisingly lifted" face and svelte figure, and, still, "one of the most acclaimed voices" of Spain.
Pantoja has sold some 6 million albums and released over 30 recordings. A native of Triana, a Seville neighborhood that breeds flamenco artists, Pantoja first danced in a flamenco show at age 7, and started singing professionally while still in her teens. Her notoriety increased with her 1983 marriage to Francisco Rivera "Paquirri," a star bullfighter. When Paquirri was killed in the ring in 1984, the raven-haired singer became known as "the widow of Spain."
Pantoja entered a women's prison in Southern Spain in November 2014 after being charged with money laundering, stemming from her romantic relationship with the former mayor of Marbella, who remains in jail. The singer was released on probation in March of this year, and completed her sentence on Oct. 28. Pantoja has reportedly paid a fine in euros equal to about $1.25 million dollars that was part of her sentence, but still owes the equivalent of nearly $2 million dollars to the Spanish government in back taxes.
Post-prison, the singer has upped her concert fees to a reported 100,000 Euros (more than $100,000) per show. So far scheduled to perform in three major Spanish venues: February 11 at Madrid's Barclaycard Center, on February 18 at the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, and on June 24 at Sevilla's La Cartuja. Dates will soon be announced for Latin America and the United States, according to Universal.