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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
L’italiana in Algeri - Opera giocosa in two acts (1813)
Mustafa, Bey of Algiers - Simone Alaimo (buffa bass); Elvira, Mustafa’s wife - Jeanette Fischer (sop); Haly, captain of the Algerian pirates - Anthony Smith (bass); Lindoro, a young Italian and Mustafa’s favourite slave - Bruce Ford (ten); Isabella, an Italian lady - Jennifer Larmore (mezzo); Taddeo, Isabella’s companion - Alessandro Corbelli (buffa bar)
Orchestra and chorus of the Paris Opera/Bruno Campanella
rec. live, Opéra National de Paris, Palais Garnier, April 1998
Stage Director: Andrei Surban; Set and costume designer: Marina Draghici
Sound format, DD 5.1. DTS 5.1. LPCM stereo. Picture format 16:9 anamorphic
Introductory notes in English, German and French
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French and Spanish
TDK DVD VIDEO DVWW-OPITAL [148:00]

 


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.

The overture 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.

Tancredi and 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


 


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