1813 was a memorable
year for Rossini. He had made his mark in a highly competitive
profession with a series of five
operatic farces presented at Venice’s small San Moise theatre.
He had come to the notice of the city’s premier theatre, La Fenice,
who commissioned him to write an opera seria. The last of the
one act farsa, Il
Signor Bruschino for the San Moise was premiered in late
January with the opera seria, Tancredi, based on Voltaire’s
tragedy, but given a happy ending, following on 6 February. Tancredi’s
catchy tune from the cavatina Di tanti palpiti became the
whistle-tune of the contemporary Italian streets. Rossini’s revision
of Tancredi for Ferrara a few weeks later reverted to the
Voltaire’s original tragic ending DVD
review. A north Italian audience used to happy endings was
less enthusiastic than that at Venice.
After his visit
to Ferrara to present the revised Tancredi, Rossini returned
to Venice to write a comic opera, at short notice, for the Teatro
San Benedetto after another composer failed to deliver. With
a timetable of less than a month, Rossini claimed to have composed
the work in a mere eighteen days and short cuts were inevitable.
First it was decided to recycle, with some revisions, the libretto
of an existing opera, Luigi Mosca’s L’Italiana in Algeri
of 1808. Rossini outsourced both the recitatives and Haly’s
short act 2 La femmine d’Italia (CH 33). Rossini’s L’Italiana
in Algeri, his eleventh opera, was premiered on
22 May 1813 to almost constant wild, general applause
according to a contemporary review. It is the earliest of the
composer’s truly great full-length comedies. It certainly has
speed as well as felicitous melodies. Although it fell from
the repertoire for a period early in the 20th century it was
revived for the Spanish coloratura Conchita Supervia in 1925.
It is one of the few Rossini operas to have had a presence in
the catalogue since the early days of LP.
The plot concerns
the feisty eponymous heroine Isabella. She has been sailing
in the Mediterranean, accompanied by an elderly admirer Taddeo,
in search of her lover Lindoro. After her ship is wrecked, Mustafa,
the Bey of Algiers, finds her the ideal replacement for his
neglected wife who he intends to marry off to a slave, who happens
to be Lindoro. After complicated situations involving Taddeo
being awarded the honour of Kaimakan and Mustafa becoming a
Pappataci, a spoof award invented by Isabella, to keep him obeying
strict instructions, all ends well in a rousing finale.
is most appealing with the, by now for Rossini, inevitable crescendo
to go with the trademark tuneful brio. Using the lightly orchestrated
critical edition helps. The role of Isabella has drawn many
of the great post-Second World War mezzos to record it in audio
versions including the redoubtable American Marilyn Horne (Erato
2292-45404-2 in 1981) highlights
of which are reviewed on this site and the Italian Lucia Valentini-Terrani
whose second audio recording is also reviewed.
Both these singers have considerable vocal ranges with particular
strength in the lower mezzo area. Jennifer Larmore, the Isabella
on this recording has the same wide-ranging voice with the added
advantage of great smoothness across the range. She also is
a considerable singer as shown on her Opera
Rara CD entitled Bravura Arias. Hers are just the
vocal fireworks needed in this production by Andrei Serban and
his designer Marina Draghici presented at Paris’s Palais Garnier
in1998. Outrageous colours and incessant movement are the hallmarks
although not as much as in Dario Fo’s Pesaro production of 1994
in which Jennifer Larmore’s singing of appoggiatura was limited.
Everything is oversized from the large ship seen sinking behind
the captive Isabella, another that arrives to take everyone
to freedom and including the stomachs of the harem eunuchs.
Although both ships referred to are of what might be called
the modern variety, at the start it is a small galleon which
is shown passing. Does this represent the one that brought Lindoro
to Mustafa’s kingdom?
The sets generally
seem a mélange of styles. Sometimes costumes are distinctly
modern whilst at other times Turkish traditional dominates.
The modern includes the opening with Mustafa’s wife Elvira having
a massage; when Mustafa arrives she fawns on him and performs
the splits in front of him. Not many sopranos can do that (CHs
3-4)! Jeanette Fischer also sings with clarity and acts her
part well throughout. Lindoro appears first as part of a chain
gang of convicts with ankles manacled. The chains come in handy
for Mustafa to connect him to Elvira as the Bey makes clear
his intentions for them both. Simple but effective! In his cavatina
Langir per una bella (CH 6) Bruce Ford shows both his
flexibility and limitations in terms of mellifluous vocal tone.
However, his flexibility and natural stagecraft are a great
strength throughout, first of all in the patter duet with the
Mustafa of Simone Alaimo (CH 8). Alaimo’s is not the juiciest
of buffa bass voices but his acting with his voice, and range
of facial expressions, combine towards a consummate characterisation.
Despite a slightly throaty tone he understands everything about
the role and the words come over with relish and meaning.
The arrival of the
American mezzo Jennifer Larmore as the eponymous Italian Girl
is preceded by the projection of a picture of a large boat sinking.
Her introductory Cruda Sorte (Ch. 10) shows her voice
to be in fine fettle and untroubled by the low tessitura. Most
importantly she sings across the wide vocal range without recourse
to the obvious vocal gear changes that some singers, lacking
her evenness and bravura technique, are forced to make. She
decorates the vocal line with ease and without excess. The idiosyncrasies
of the production do not detract from her very fine interpretation
that matches that on her excellent audio recording (Teldec/Warner).
The Italian Girl arrives with her admirer Taddeo, a role long
dominated on stage and record by Enzo Dara whose renowned buffa
capabilities are matched here by Alessandro Corbelli. Character
singers such as are required in this role do not have to have
the vocal skills of Figaro in The Barber of Seville.
But if artists cannot convey, by acting and vocal nuance in
their singing, the complexities of the plot situations then
the whole edifice of the opera giocosa collapses. I can give
Corbelli no greater compliment than to say that his performance
in act 2, particularly as Taddeo is appointed Kaimakan by Mustafa
(CHs 26-27) and then has to convince him as to a Pappataci’s
behaviour (CHs 40-41), and which ensures the realisation of
the Italian Girl’s spoof and brings about the release of the
captives, is outstanding. He has to tolerate one of the more
idiosyncratic aspects of the production by being carried around
on the shoulders of a strong man who is covered by the extra
long Turkish robes Taddeo wears as a Kaimakan. Camera work,
which includes a lot of close-ups, means that we do not see
when he is lifted and lowered.
I have referred
to production idiosyncrasies, which are many, and at times threaten
to reduce Rossini’s work to farce; L’Italiana in Algeri it is
a comic opera not a farsa. Regrettably, some of the visuals
only just avoid the epithet slapstick. That being said, L’Italiana
in Algeri is a difficult work to bring off. Given the producer’s
decision to update, the variety of costumes, which includes
the imprisoned sailors appearing in football strip in Italian
colours, are vivid and varied. The lighting is imaginative and
aids the producer’s vision. Bruno Campanella’s conducting is
well paced, idiomatic, and sympathetic to his singers. He keeps
the whole opera zipping along in an ideal manner. The sound
has the odd raw patch but not so much as to detract from my
enjoyment. The pictures of Paris’s wonderful Palais Garnier
during the overture (CH. 2) are a glory.
L’Italiana in Algeri launched Rossini on an unstoppable
career that saw him become the most prestigious opera composer
of his time. Musically, the singing and acting of the principals
here do him justice. The production is more questionable. Unlike
the early years of LP there is choice available; to which Marilyn
Horne’s 1986 Metropolitan Opera performance in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
production, caught for TV by Brian Large, has just been added
(DG 073 4261).
Robert J Farr