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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792 – 1868) L’Italiana in Algeri (highlights)
Act I: Languir per una bella … (Lindoro); Quanta roba! quanti schiavi! (Coro, Haly, Isabella); Già d’insolito ardore nel petto (Mustafà); Oh! Che muso, che figura! (Isabella, Mustafà); Pria di dividerci da voi ... (Tutti)
Act II: Oh, come il cor di giubilo (Lindoro); Ho un gran peso sulla testa (Taddeo, Coro); Per lui che adoro (Isabella, Mustafà, Taddeo, Lindoro); Pappataci! Che mai sento! (Mustafà, Lindoro, Taddeo); Pronti abbiamo e ferri e mani (Coro, Isabella); Son l’aure seconde, son placide l’onde (Coro, Lindoro, Isabella, Taddeo, Mustafà); Mio signore ... mio marito (Tutti)
Samuel Ramey (bass) – Mustafà, Bey of Algiers; Kathleen Battle (soprano) – Elvira, his wife; Clara Foti (mezzo-soprano) – Zulma, Elvira’s servant; Nicola Zaccaria (bass) – Haly, the pirate chief); Ernesto Palacio (tenor) – Lindoro, a young Italian slave; Marilyn Horne (mezzo-soprano) – Isabella, an Italian woman); Domenico Trimarchi (bass) – Taddeo, Isabella’s admirer).
Prague Philharmonic Chorus
I solisti Veneti/Claudio Scimone
Recorded in the Teatro Comunale, Treviso, in June 1980.
WARNER APEX 2564 61564-2 [72:52]

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The first half of the year 1813 became the turning point in Rossini’s career. He wrote four operas, two of which were failures, but the other two had resounding success and at once established Rossini as the foremost opera composer in Italy. In February the opera seria Tancredi was performed in Venice and in May L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) was premiered, also in Venice. According to Rossini himself he wrote it in 18 days. It is highly regarded as one of the finest examples of traditional opera buffa but it is not performed as frequently as The Barber of Seville and Cinderella, and it is one of my sorrows that, although I have loved the music for nearly forty years I have never had the good fortune to catch a performance of it. I’m still hoping though.

My main point of reference for this review has been a 40-year-old Decca recording, conducted by Silvio Varviso, with Teresa Berganza taking the pert of the Italian girl and with a supporting cast boasting some of the most renowned and experienced Rossinians of the day: Luigi Alva, Fernando Corena, Rolando Panerai, Paolo Montarsolo.

The plot: Mustafà, Bey of Algiers, has grown tired of his wife Elvira, who always complains, and tries to get her married to his Italian slave, Lindoro, but he only wants to marry someone he really loves. Isabella, who is searching all over the world for her lost fiancé (Lindoro of course) is ship-wrecked, taken prisoner and brought to the Bey’s palace. Mustafà has always wanted an Italian wife and thinks that his problem has come to an end. In act II Isabella and Lindoro are planning to run away together with the other Italian prisoners. Isabella says to Mustafà that she wants to test him before discussing a marriage: he has to be able to sleep very heavily. After an unsuccessful attempt he manages to fall into a very deep sleep and the Italians can sail away. When he wakes up he realises that he has been fooled and returns to his old Elvira. As a story it is no better or no worse than literally hundreds of other buffa operas through the years, but the music belongs to the most inspired Rossini ever wrote and many of the set pieces here could be compared to the best ones in The Barber or Cinderella.

This highlights disc, culled from a complete Erato recording of 25 years ago, plays for nearly 73 minutes and will give you a very good idea of the quality of the score. As can be seen from the cast list the singers are quite comparable to the Rossinians on the Varviso recording.

The conductor, Claudio Scimone, is an old hand at Rossini, having recorded quite a few complete sets, among them a couple in the Philips cycle from about 25 years ago. There is vitality in the overture and he knows how to build a Rossinian crescendo.

The first of the characters we meet on this disc is Lindoro, who sings Languir per una bella, a lovely aria with a beautiful French horn solo as an introduction. I must say, though, that it sounds a bit murky here, compared to Varviso’s soloist on the Decca set. The tenor, Ernesto Palacio, was one of the best in the wake of Luigi Alva, who was the reigning Rossini tenor for more than 25 years. The voices are not dissimilar in character: lean, bright and when singing over mezzo-forte they can both adopt a penetrating quality that can be ingratiating. But they can also sing softly which Palacio does to good effect when he repeats the aria’s first stanza. Better than either is Raúl Giménez, whose Rossini recital on Nimbus should be compulsory listening to anyone interested in bel canto. He caresses every phrase, he sings the repeat of the aria almost whispering and his voice is the most flexible of instruments. It’s a pity Giménez wasn’t recorded more often. Today we have of course Juan Diego Florez, but also Juan José Lopera, another Latin American tenor, who Bill Kenny praised in his review (see Seen and Heard) of the Finnish National Opera’s Cenerentola in December 2004. I saw the opera a week or so before Bill and was equally impressed by Lopera.

The Italian Girl is sung with great aplomb by Marilyn Horne. Her first aria, Cruda sorte, which definitely is one of the best mezzo-arias Rossini – or anyone else – wrote, is a perfect vehicle for Horne, who in 1980 was in formidable form. Her technical assurance is of course legendary, but she is also a master (mistress?) of colouring the voice, purring like a cat, teasing, seducing. Maybe she resorts too often to that hefty chest voice, so typical for her; on the other hand Isabella is a girl who knows what she wants, and Horne’s pearling laughter in the duet with Mustafà is alone worth the price of the disc. Berganza on the Varviso recording is just as accomplished, but makes Isabella a more genial character. Both interpretations are valid. By the way, is it only my equipment that catches some distortion in fortissimo passages in the Horne recording?

Enter Mustafà. Scimone’s Bey of Algiers is Samuel Ramey, the most fantastic bass during the last 25 years or so. His technique is formidable, he can sing any roulades, any runs, to perfection. His voice is beautiful, powerful, steady. No wonder he is the most recorded bass in history. What has always been a drawback is a certain sameness in his singing. Most characters sound alike. Still he is unexpectedly expressive and colours his voice in this recording. But compared to Fernando Corena on the Varviso set, he is much too straight-faced. Corena’s larger-than-life interpretation can border on caricature and he isn’t very subtle in his phrasing, but he has "face" and Ramey hides his behind a mask, however thin. But wallowing in the sheer beauty of Ramey’s singing is a pleasure in itself and not to be missed.

The fourth main protagonist in these excerpts is the chorus, and whether they are pirates or Turks or Italian slaves these Prague singers do a good job. As to the rest the young Kathleen Battle, as Mustafàs wife, can be heard briefly in the act I finale, where her crystal clear soprano soars above the rest of the ensemble, and Domenico Trimarchi, a well-versed buffo, acts convincingly as Taddeo. Still I found more personality in Panerai on the Varviso set, possibly because his voice is so much more immediately recognizable.

This opera is, as I have already said, filled with delicious music and, returning to the protagonist, Isabella, once more: listen to her act II aria, Per lui che adoro, with that ravishing orchestral introduction with plucked strings and a flute weaving a lovely cantilena between and around the plucked chords. And listen also to Marilyn Horne’s handling of the text, and the music, in the repeat of the aria. Absolutely enchanting!

There is, as usual with these Apex highlights, a short synopsis in the booklet but no cues to the tracks. In this case it doesn’t matter much. You can enjoy the music without knowing exactly what happens, and I urge anyone who doesn’t know this opera to snap up this disc before it disappears again. The buy-before dates tend to come ever closer to release-dates. Those who already know the opera will need no urging from me. But I do hope that Decca will restore the Varviso recording to circulation before long.

Göran Forsling

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