Recordings of Rossini’s first full-length comic opera are coming thick and fast at present. Already this year Sony has re-issued, in the Opera House series, their 1979 recording featuring Lucia Valentini-Terrani. There is also a new live recording for review from Naxos. Recorded at Bad Wildbad in 2008 it features the new tenor find Lawrence Brownlee, making waves in Rossini at New York’s Metropolitan, alongside the admired Italian diva Marianna Pizzolato in the title role; Rossini scholar and conductor Alberto Zedda is on the rostrum.
This proliferation of recordings is wholly fitting as L’Italiana in Algeri
has had a place in the catalogue since the earliest days of LP. It now takes its rightful place on the world’s opera stages and in the Rossini canon. The composition of L’Italiana
followed on from the success of Rossini’s opera seria Tancredi
, premiered at La Fenice, in February 1813. He revised this work with a tragic ending for performances in Ferrara a few weeks later. On his return to Venice, and with his reputation on an upward spiral, Rossini was in demand to write a comic opera, at very short notice, for the Teatro San Benedetto. Faced with a timetable of less than a month Rossini decided to recycle, with some revisions, the libretto of an existing opera. He also out-sourced the recitatives and Haly’s short aria in act two La femmine d’Italia
(CD 2 tr.14). These and the aria are included in the Critical Edition by Azio Corghi for the Rossini Foundation, Pesaro and this is, I believe, the version used here.
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, believes her the ideal replacement for his neglected wife who he intends to marry off to a captured slave, who happens to be Lindoro. Complicated situations ensue involving Taddeo being awarded the honour of Kaimakan and Mustafa in turn becoming a Pappataci, a spoof award invented by Isabella to keep him obeying her strict instructions. All ends well in a rousing finale with the Italians escaping from the clutches of the Bey.
In my review of the Sony recording (see review
) I noted that despite a cast of native Italians, who invest the recitatives with commendable nuance, somewhere along the way Rossini’s vibrant opera with all its humour gets lost. I attributed this to Lucia Valentini-Terrani, somewhat heavier in tone than in her previous recording (see review
) and failing to bring out the lightness and vivacity of the role. I felt this was exactly what Marilyn Horne’s interpretation on Erato
, the highlights of which were reviewed by a colleague did (see review
) and which now comes complete and at bargain price.
What all rivals on record lack as Isabella, Marilyn Horne has in abundance. Her singing of Crude sorte!
(CD 1 Tr.8) has everything as Isabella, whilst regretting her situation, determines to keep her cool and makes sure she is not assigned to the Harem. Horne’s even, full-toned singing has excellent flexibility and diction as well encompassing first class characterisation. These qualities are present in her singing throughout and in particular can also be enjoyed in the extended scene including the rondo Pensa alla patria
(CD 2 Tr.19) as Isabella determines to release her compatriots as celebrations of the Sultan’s elevation to Pappataci go on around her. Unequalled in this role in at least the past half century she is in excellent vocal form throughout, a fact that puts this performance in the front line. Add the superb fully-toned flexible bass singing of Samuel Ramey as the Bey and matters improve even further. Ramey’s steady and sonorous singing is a strength throughout, even if there are times when his characterisation slips. Combined, Horne’s command of all the nuances of the role and Ramey’s tonal beauty and wide range are unbeatable on disc in this opera.
In extolling the virtues of the singing of Ramey and Horne, I must remember that L’Italiana in Algeri
is not a two singer opera. As Isabella’s lover Lindoro, Ernesto Palacio, now better known as the teacher of Juan Diego Florez, is an elegant and flexible high tenor who sings without aspirates as he decorates the line with accomplished coloratura; he practises what he later taught his excellent pupil if never quite reaching the latter’s level. As with Horne, Palacio’s characterisation and expression as well as elegance of phrase are commendable. Domenico Trimarchi is a characterful Taddeo if never quite erasing the memory of Enzo Dara who takes the part on at least three other recordings. Nicola Zaccaria is a strong-toned Haly (CD 2 Tr.14) whilst the young Kathleen Battle, as Mustafŕ’s wife, exhibits a crystal clear soprano soaring in the quintetto (CD 2 Tr.12) and finale (Tr.24). The chorus plays its part to the full and Claudio Scimone conducts a chamber-sized orchestra with brio. The recording is clear and bright. The booklet gives track-listing and related synopsis in English, French and German.
Robert J Farr