Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
L’Italiana in Algeri - Comic opera in two acts (1813)
Mustafa, Bey of Algiers – Lorenzo Regazzo (bass)
Elvira, Mustafa’s wife – Ruth Gonzalez (soprano)
Haly, captain of the Algerian pirates – Giulio Mastrototaro (bass)
Lindoro, a young Italian and Mustafa’s favourite slave – Lawrence Brownlee (tenor)
Isabella, an Italian lady – Marianna Pizzolato (alto)
Taddeo, Isabella’s adoring companion – Bruno De Simone (buffa bass)
Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir, Virtuoso Brunensis/Alberto Zedda
rec. live, Kursaal, Bad Wildbad, Germany. 2-3, 4-5 July 2008, Jubilee performance of the 20th Rossini in Wildbad Festival in the critical edited for the Rossini Foundation, Pesaro by Azio Corghi
NAXOS OPERA CLASSICS 8.660284-85 [68.57 + 67.17]

Recordings of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, the composer’s first full-length comic opera, are arriving thick and fast. As I write in the autumn of 2010 the work has already appeared in two re-issues featuring renowned divas as L’Italiana. Sony, in their Sony Opera House series, has given a new lease of life to the 1979 recording featuring Lucia Valentini-Terrani in the eponymous role (see review) whilst from Erato’s Opera Collection has come a revival of the admired 1980 recording with a starry cast including the formidable Marilyn Horne centre-stage. I awarded this Bargain of the Month whilst also warning that this live performance from Naxos was on the way (see review). It was recorded at Bad Wildbad in 2008 in a performance to celebrate the Bad Wildbad Festival’s twentieth anniversary. Notably it features one of the earliest recordings of new tenor find, Lawrence Brownlee, now finding illustrious fame in Rossini at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, alongside the admired Italian diva Marianna Pizzolato in the title role. Renowned Rossini scholar and conductor Alberto Zedda, nearing his eightieth year, is on the rostrum.

This proliferation of recordings is wholly fitting as L’Italiana has had a place in the record 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 premiere in May 1813 followed on from the success, earlier in the same year, of the composer’s opera seria Tancredi at Venice’s premier theatre, the La Fenice. Immediately after that event the composer travelled to Ferrara where he presented a revised version of the work with a tragic ending more appropriate to the Voltaire original. On his return to Venice, and with his reputation swept along in 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 he decided to recycle, with some revisions, the libretto of an existing opera. He also outsourced the recitatives and Haly’s short aria in act two La femmine d’Italia (CD 2 tr.14). The recitatives and the aria are those included in the Critical Edition by Azio Corghi for the Rossini Foundation, Pesaro, which is used here.

The plot of L’Italiana revolves around 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. This slave 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 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. She is somewhat heavier in tone than in her previous recording (see review) and fails 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). The latter now comes complete and at bargain price.

This Naxos recording may not have the starry names of the other versions referred to here. What it does have is the non-pareil experience of Alberto Zedda. Right from the outset his rhythmic vitality belies his age, whilst his experience of the composer’s music characterises this performance. Add his pacing throughout, particularly in the recitatives, and the performance as a whole is off to a flying start. At the time of the recording not many of the soloists were household names in the Rossini firmament. That has changed somewhat in the intervening years. This is particularly so with respect to Lawrence Brownlee who is now making big waves in what had been considered the fiefdom of Juan Diego Florez. Brownlee has more edge to his tone than his renowned Peruvian coeval. He gets both his major arias ((CD 1 Tr.5 and CD 2 Tr.4) whilst contributing with tonal beauty to ensembles and duets where his high-flying tenor is distinctive. Whilst there is the odd squeeze to the tone he, as we now know, is a major artist in this repertoire and is in demand at the best operatic addresses. Not quite achieving that level is Marianna Pizzolato as the eponymous lady, Isabella. If Marilyn Horne comes over as though she could eat the Bey for breakfast, and without indigestion, as she manoeuvres him into the Pappataci shenanigans (CD 2 Tr.17), Pizzolato, shown as contralto but more a soft-grained mezzo to my ears, comes over as much more feminine in her wiles. In the cavatina Crude sorte! her even tone and well shaped phrases are welcome, whilst her native Italian is even more so in the recitatives. Venetian Giulio Mastrototaro is quite magnificent as the Bey infatuated with Isabella. His full-ranged resonant voice allied to vocal flexibility and ability to play with the words portends a great future in this repertoire. He is heard to benefit throughout. Bruno De Simone, an old hand in this repertoire, characterises Isabella’s elderly admirer Taddeo well whether fearing his own fate, accepting the Bey’s honours or playing as Isabella’s uncle. Giulio Mastrototaro, with a soft-grained bass, sings Haly’s aria with appropriate nuance (CD 2 Tr.14).

If this live performance does not displace the Warner recording, and particularly its duo of Marilyn Horne and Sam Ramey in my affections, it is without doubt one of the best of the many Rossini performances Naxos have made at Bad Wildbad. Its quality, particularly it’s conducting, can stand alongside any on record. For those irritated by the intrusion of applause in live performances, it is more frequent and enthusiastic than in those other recordings, reflecting the quality. Those who enjoy the extra vibrancy of live recordings, and are more tolerant of the intrusions, can glory in its strengths.

Rossinian enthusiasts will savour this performance and at the price can afford to add it to their other versions. The absence of libretto is a drawback although one is available, without translation, at For those relatively new to the work, or the composer’s compositions other than Il Barbiere, in many ways the complexities of the story can better be understood from seeing a performance of which there are several versions on DVD. I review two such on this site, although in rather idiosyncratic productions. That from the Pesaro Festival of 2006 also involves Marianna Pizzolato as Isabella (see review) whilst the TDK from Paris in 1998, and also in 16:9 format, has Jennifer Larmore who gives a bravura performance decorating 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 on Teldec/Warner (see review).

The booklet to this issue provides an excellent track-related synopsis and welcome artist profiles.

Robert J Farr

Perhaps the best of the many Naxos recordings of Rossini operas from Bad Wildbad.