Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
L’Italiana in Algeri - Comic opera in two acts (1813)
Mustafa, Bey of Algiers – Wladimiro Ganzarolli (bass); Elvira, Mustafa’s wife – Jean Marie Bima (soprano); Haly, captain of the Algerian pirates – Alessandro Corbelli (bass); Lindoro, a young Italian and Mustafa’s favourite slave – Francesco Araiza (tenor); Isabella, an Italian lady - Lucia Valentini-Terrani - (mezzo); Taddeo, Isabella’s companion – Enzo Dara (buffa baritone)
Capella Colonienses. Männerchor des WDR/Gabriele Ferro
rec. Schulzentrum Lindar, Cologne, August 1979
Performed in the Critical Edition by Azio Corghi for the Rossini Foundation, Pesaro
SONY OPERA HOUSE 88697579082 [73.38 + 72.38]

Rossini first made his mark in his highly competitive chosen profession with a series of five farsi presented at the small San Moise theatre in Venice. These brought him to the notice of the city’s premier theatre, La Fenice, who commissioned him to write an opera seria. His Tancredi, based on Voltaire’s tragedy, but given a happy ending, was premiered there in February 1813; it was a resounding success. Rossini’s work reverted to Voltaire’s tragic ending in a revival at Ferrara a few weeks later. It was not popular with contemporary audiences.

After the revised Tancredi, Rossini returned to Venice to write a comic opera, at very short notice, for the Teatro San Benedetto. They were desperate after another composer had failed to deliver. Faced with a timetable of less than a month Rossini decided to recycle, with some revisions, the libretto of an existing opera. He also outsourced the recitatives and Haly’s short aria in act 2 La femmine d’Italia. Premiered on 22 May 1813, Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, his eleventh opera, was received with “almost constant wild, general applause” according to a contemporary review. The earliest of the composer’s truly great full-length comedies it has speed as well as felicitous melodies. Although it fell from the repertoire for a period during the first part of the 20th century 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, believes her the ideal replacement for his neglected wife who he intends to marry off to a captured slave, who happens to be Lindoro. After complicated situations 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.

Not for nothing did L’Italiana in Algeri launch Rossini on an unstoppable international career. It saw him become, in his lifetime, the most prestigious opera composer of his time. The CD era has coincided with his emergence to his rightful place in the pantheon. It is now possible to buy recordings of all but a handful of his operas. Lucia Valentini-Terrani had already recorded the role of Isabella, along with Enzo Dara as Taddeo. They were conducted by Gary Bertini a year earlier. Whilst the earlier recording was with the Dresden State Orchestra, this one uses the lighter textures of a period band. It is also, I believe, the first recording to use the then newly published Critical Edition by Azio Corghi for the Rossini Foundation, Pesaro. It was first issued on CD by CBS/Fonit Cetra on M2K 39048 with libretto and translation.

Despite the benefits of the period band, aided by 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. In the eponymous role Lucia Valentini-Terrani is altogether heavier in tone than in her previous recording (see review) and does not bring out the lightness and vivacity of the role. This is just what defines Marilyn Horne’s interpretation on Erato (2292-45404 nla but see review of highlights). Despite this Valentini-Terrani’s Crude sorte! (CD 1 tr.9-10) has presence, and in the rondo Pensa alla patria (CD 24 Tr.2) her coloratura is secure as Isabella tells her compatriots to think of their country, show bravery and join in her plan. It is here that she misses out so much compared to Horne, so versed in the Rossini idiom. In many instances it is Enzo Dara as Taddeo and Alessandro Corbelli as Haly who really come into their own and who relish the nuances in the music and their native language. They bring character to their roles, so vital in the Pappataci scene (CD 2 trs.26-28). Francesco Araiza has neither the ideal vocal lightness nor the freedom to soar, albeit he sings with taste. Wladimiro Ganzarolli is not the true bass the role of Mustafa really requires. He is often somewhat gruff of tone and struggles with both the lowest notes and the humorous asides.

If it were not for the competition I would, perhaps, find more to praise in Claudio Scimone’s interpretation, aided by the fine playing of the small-sized I Solisti Venetti. As it is, whilst I welcome the renewed availability of this version, and at a competitive price, it cannot go anywhere near the top in a very competitive market. Those who do not know this delectable work, find the story a little far-fetched, and the Pappataci scene difficult to get their head around, should really watch a performance on DVD before acquiring an audio-only version for enjoyment in the car or moments of the blues. The incomparable Marilyn Horne’s 1986 Metropolitan Opera performance, in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production, caught for TV by Brian Large, is recommended (DG 073 4261.). In better video is the version from TDK (DVWW-OPITAL) in Andrei Surban’s somewhat idiosyncratic staging (see review). Dario Fo’s hyperactive staging is also somewhat off-the-wall in the Dynamic recording from Pesaro in 2006. Filmed in high definition it has visual spectacle to go along with the production (see review). This performance is also available on CD for those who prefer live performance audio recordings. A studio recording made in association with staged performances in Vienna in 1989 features the very beefy Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Abbado with Agnes Baltsa’s tangy mezzo giving a very characterful portrayal as Isabella. As here, expert Rossinian’s Corbelli and Enzo Dara sing Haly and Taddeo and are joined by a very characterful Ruggero Raimondi as Mustafa. Despite the size of the band, the performance goes along with zip with the finale of act one particularly invigorating.

As with other issues in this series the accompanying leaflet has a track-listing and, in English, French and German, a track-related synopsis. The sound is very acceptable with presence and range.

Robert J Farr