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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
L'Italiana in Algeri (1813)
Mustafà - Alex Esposito
Elvira - Mariangela Sicilia
Zulma - Raffaella Lupinacci
Haly - Davide Luciano
Lindoro - Yijie Shi
Isabella - Anna Goryachova
Taddeo - Mario Cassi
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna/José Ramón Encinar
Director: Davide Livermore
rec. live, Pesaro Festival, August 2013
Subtitles: English, French, German, Korean
1080i Full HD. 16:9 ratio.
Sound format: 2.0LPCM + 5.1(5.0) DTS
Extra features: Cast gallery; the making of L'Italiana in Algeri
OPUS ARTE Blu-ray OABD7148D [153:00]

A sticker on the front of this Blu-ray offers a classic case of selective quotation: ‘Hugely Impressive. (Seen and Heard International)’.  What Jack Buckley actually wrote in his review for our sister site was: ‘Not too many bassi buffi can appear successfully in beach shorts. But Esposito does, a crown in his hugely impressive delivery.’  Overall he was less impressed than that selective phrase implies: in particular he disliked the way that Anna Goryachova’s Italian Girl eschewed charm and, thereby, the necessary irony.  ‘Rossini, I fear, had not been well served’, he wrote, giving his review the overall title ‘Would you want this tough Italian Girl?’

Nor was JB much taken with Yijie Shi’s Lindoro, though, as he notes, the Italian audience adored him.  In sum, only Alex Esposito’s Mustafŕ and José Ramón Encinar’s thoughtful musical direction emerged with any real credit.

My heart didn’t exactly leap when I opened the parcel and beheld the shocking pink front cover and the 1960s-style thigh-length white boots and gloves – a mixture of Holly Golightly and Emma Peel from The Avengers?  Was this going to be yet another opera DVD or blu-ray which ended being heard in audio only, if at all?

With that in mind, I opted to listen first rather than watch.  A lively account of the overture gets us off to a good start, though the noises off – already? – are a little disturbing for audio-only appreciation, so I switched to see what it was all about.  Viewed on screen the reason for the noises becomes apparent, with someone – Lindoro as it later transpires – trying to evade a spotlight and soldiers searching for him.

Our Italian girl first appears in cartoon form, leading a spoiled life style and buying a ticket to fly off in search of Lindoro.  Plane crashes, supposedly brought down by a random ‘lucky’ shot from Mustafŕ, and she emerges from wreckage, looking unruffled – I suppose that’s a reasonable modern substitute for a shipwreck, but worse is to follow.

The whole production is one big charade, with silly costumes, 1960s references and dance movements and superfluous action getting in the way of the plot – such as it is – and, more importantly, the music.  To give just one example, veiled young women constantly pushing vacuum cleaners to and fro is highly distracting.

Half way through I gave up watching and switched to playing via the blu-ray players which I keep hooked up to my audio system.  I have to use them so often for that purpose for opera recordings where the action is crazy that they are both of higher quality than the one linked to the television.

Played via an audio system, the recorded sound is good, if not quite in the same category as the Naxos blu-ray set of Rossini overtures.  (Volume 1 on NBD0028 – review and reviewL’Italiana is on Volume 2: NBD0035).

As an audio recording the new Opus Arte has some formidable competition to match, from the classic Decca set with Teresa Berganza, Rolando Panerai and Silvio Varviso (E4758275) and more recent recordings directed by Claudio Scimone (Teldec 2564683359: Bargain of the Month – review) and Claudio Abbado (DG E4273312 or, with other Rossini operas, 4790125, 9 CDs), all at mid price or less.  The inexpensive Naxos live recording with Alberto Zedda in charge also has its virtues – review review and DL Roundup June 2010 – though it’s the Abbado that I used as my benchmark.  Even as an mp3 download it sounds very well and I also sampled it in better lossless format from Qobuz; it still sounds at least as good as the new Opus Arte and there’s no noisy stage business to contend with.

I’m sorry to say that in almost every respect Abbado and his team put the new recording to shame. There’s nothing downright awful about any of the singing – as there is with the production – but there’s very little that makes it competitive with the Abbado or Scimone sets.

As Jack Buckley writes, only Esposito shines and only he comes at all near to challenging the singers on either of these sets.  Samuel Ramey’s Mustafŕ and Marilyn Horne’s Isabella for Scimone in particular take some beating, as do Agnes Baltsa and Ruggero Raimondi for Abbado.  I did, however, admire the way in which Encinar kept the music ticking over through all the mayhem.  The less than enthusiastic reception that he received at the end was most unjust.  Yijie Shi, on the other hand, a favourite of the audience, received an encomium for his decent but far from outstanding performance.

I put this review aside for a while in the hope that my response to this recording would mellow and I would be able to say something kinder about it.  In the meantime Robert J Farr’s review of the DVD equivalent has appeared and he has been a little more appreciative – for example of Anna Goryachova’s singing of Isabella.  Though he notes some of her smudged runs he also refers to the inevitable limitations caused by the outrageous demands which Livermore’s direction places on her.

He’s right to complain of the parsimonious nature of the booklet, which is no better for the blu-ray version: there’s a reasonable synopsis but it’s not cued to the recording.  It’s superfluous to add that the blu-ray picture is excellent – too much detail of what I didn’t want to see.

I’m sorry not to find much to like in this recording.  Far too often I find myself liking a performance but disliking the stage direction and ending up listening in audio only.  I’m pleased to report that, working my way through the complete 2012 Frankfurt Opera Wagner Ring cycle on Oehms DVDs has been an exception and a delight, odd quibbles about the production and singing apart.  For L’Italiana in Algeri, however, the alternatives are too superior for me even to consider this recording as an audio-only option.

Brian Wilson

Previous review (DVD): Robert J Farr