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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792 – 1868)
L’Italiana in Algeri

Isabella – Luciana Valentini-Terrani (mezzo)
Lindoro – Ugo Benelli (tenor)
Mustafa – Sesto Bruscantini (bass)
Taddeo – Enzo Dara (baritone)
Elvira – Norma Palacios–Rossi (soprano)
Zulma – Gigliola Caputi (mezzo)
Haly – Alfredo Mariotti (bass)
Chorus of the State Opera, Dresden
Dresden Staatskapelle/Gary Bertini
Recorded 1978
ARTS ARCHIVE 43048-2 [69.35 + 70.32]

 

Rossini wrote ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’ for the San Benedetto Theatre in Venice during a remarkable span of five months where he wrote three new operas (‘Il Signor Bruschino’, ‘Tancredi’ and ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’) for the city’s opera houses. The soprano singing Isabella, Maria Marcolini, had already sung in Rossini’s ‘Ciro in Babilonia’ and had been instrumental in Rossini getting the commission for ‘La Pietra del Paragone’. The success of ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’ was responsible for the impresario Barbaja inviting Rossini to Naples.

‘L’Italiana in Algeri’ is one of those operas which put severe technical demands on the principals. All the major roles involve significant amounts of fioriture and some pretty fiendish ensembles; all of this in a comic opera. On stage, faced with a winning comic stage presence, one can be a little forgiving of a voice which is more buffo than bass or a tenor whose passage-work is less than perfect and whose acuti are unsatisfactory. But on a recording these things matter and in addition, in a comic opera, the singers must act with their voices and let us know that it is a comedy. We expect warmth, expression and flexibility.

These discs are a remastering of a 1978 Acanta recording which seems to have passed under the critics’ radar. Luciana Valentini-Terrani went on to re-record the role of Isabella for CBS in 1982 and it is this recording which is always mentioned in connection with her performances. Here, with Dresden forces conducted by Gary Bertini, she is supported by an all-Italian cast.

The plot involves a comic riff on Mozart’s ‘Die Entführung aus dem Serail’ with an element of the duping of an old fool in love which comes into operas such as ‘Don Pasquale’. Rossini throws these stereotype characters together with a sparkle and fizz which can be infectious and provides a great role for a comic mezzo-soprano.

Veteran bass, Sesto Bruscantini, plays Mustafa the put-upon Bey. Bruscantini was a fine comic actor with a great sense of style, but even in his prime his voice was always rather limited. Here, he sounds rather dry though his passage-work is still pretty efficient; he was nearly 60 when the recording was made. But his performance sounds rather sober, and lacking in comic fatness. Other Mustafas on disc are successful in different ways. On CBS for Ferro, Wladimiro Ganzarolli has comic fatness in spades, but supremely poor passage-work. On Erato/RCA for Claudio Scimone, Samuel Ramey displays fine, expressive passage-work, so one forgives him his rather severe sound, lacking in comic resonance.

A similar dryness affects the Taddeo of Enzo Dara and though his runs are efficient, they do not always sound nice! This is another problem that affects recordings of this music, the singers must have the ability to sing the fioriture, but it needs to be expressive and actually sound pleasant. Too often singers can manage the notes at the expense of sound quality. Here though one can forgive Dara as he is singing a comic role. But like Bruscantini, his voice lacks a comic smile. Domenico Trimarchi for Scimone is my favourite Taddeo, managing to combine that essential comic smile in his voice with a commensurate facility with the passage-work.

As Isabella’s beloved Lindoro, Ugo Benelli certainly has all the notes. He is enviably accurate in Lindoro’s fiendish opening aria; an aria which proves something of a hurdle for most tenors on disc. After this aria, Benelli more or less settles in to a rather stylish performance. But unfortunately, his passage-work often sounds neither pleasant nor expressive. One can marvel at his technical ability, but not much more. This is a something of a problem with Francisco Araiza for Ferro and Ernesto Palacio for Scimone. Both Araiza and Palacio use different means to surmount the technical challenges of the role and Palacio has the advantage of a flexible conductor in Scimone whereas Benelli has to follow Bertini’s rather driven beat. To hear an ideal performance of Lindoro’s opening aria, one must go to Juan Diego Florez’s recent recital disc.

But, whilst the other characters in the opera are important, it is the role of Isabella which makes or breaks a recording. Technically, Lucia Valentini-Terrani has the vocal apparatus to surmount Isabella’s challenges and on both of her recordings you cannot fault her on this point. But Richard Osbourne in the Gramophone described her as "jug-toned" on her CBS recording, and I rather agree with him. On this disc, recorded four years earlier, she is lighter in tone and in many ways admirable. Her passage-work sounds lovely. But her voice has no comic smile, no charm and her passage-work is too often inexpressive. One must turn to Marilyn Horne on Erato/RCA to hear a paragon of an Isabella. Horne is constantly expressive and flexible, charming and with a comic smile in her voice. She has the knack of not only singing the passage-work, but using it for expressive purposes, she colours her voice.

Of the smaller roles, Alfredo Mariotti makes a fine, dark-voiced Haly but Norma Palacios-Rossi is lacking as Elvira. Elvira has two functions, her dramatic role is to act as a foil for Isabella, but musically her role is to supply the top line in the ensembles. Unfortunately, she does not do this with the ease I would like. Turning to the Erato/RCA recording again, Kathleen Battle’s Elvira shows just how it should be done.

Gary Bertini conducts a wonderfully crisp account of the overture, but as the opera progressed I began to feel it was rather too crisply regimented. The ensembles have an accuracy which can sound driven. Moving to the Erato/RCA recording, Claudio Scimone shows how to achieve accuracy whilst also imbuing the music with flexibility and suppleness.

I have not, so far, mentioned editions. Scimone’s recording (and all subsequent ones) takes advantage of the new corrected Fondazione Rossini edition of the opera issued in 1979. I am unclear how much of this was used on the current recording; the booklet does not say.

I am not sure who might like to buy this recording. It is perfectly adequate, without being ideal. Lovers of Luciana Valentini-Terrani might be content to have a recording where she sounds in lighter voice than her CBS recording, but for me Marilyn Horne and Claudio Scimone on Erato/RCA are still essential listening in this opera. Not only do Scimone and his cast sing the opera admirably, but they make me smile.


Robert Hugill

 

see also review by Robert Farr



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