Robert J Farr
, August 2011
Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri…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 is one of the few Rossini operas to have had a presence in the recording catalogue since the early days of LP. 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…and the Italian Lucia Valentini-Terrani…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.
The plot concerns the feisty eponymous heroine Isabella who has been sailing in the Mediterranean in search of her lover Lindoro and who is accompanied by an elderly admirer, Taddeo. 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 sets and costumes of this 1998 Paris production are a melange of styles with a lot oversized. These include the large ship seen sinking behind the captive Isabella, another that arrives to take everyone to freedom and also including the stomachs of the harem eunuchs and the muscles of the Italian sailors. 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? Sometimes costumes are distinctly modern, whilst elsewhere 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 (CHs 3-4); I have only ever seen one other soprano do the splits in my many years of opera-going! 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 vocal flexibility and limitations in terms of mellifluous tone. However, his vocal flexibility and natural stage acting are a great strength throughout, not least 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 into a consummate characterisation. He understands everything about the role and the words come over with relish and meaning.
It is with Jennifer Larmore’s vocal and acted portrayal that this production outshines all competitors except for that of Marilyn Horne…Her vivacious manner and vocal brio in a vivid green dress are just the tonic needed in this Palais Garnier production by Andrei Serban and his designer Marina Draghici. Outrageous colours and incessant movement are the hallmarks although not as much as in Dario Fo’s 1994 production at Pesaro one that limited Jennifer Larmore’s singing of appoggiatura. 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 sort of 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 he are required in this role and do not have to have the vocal skills required of Figaro in The Barber of Seville. If an artist cannot convey, by acting and vocal nuance in their singing, the complexities of the plot situations then the whole edifice of an opera giocosa such as L’Italiana in Algeri collapses. I can give Corbelli no greater compliment than to say that his performance in act 2, when Taddeo is appointed Kaimakan by Mustafa (CHs 26-27) and then has to convince him as to a Pappataci’s behaviour (CHs 40-41), is outstanding. That superb characterisation and acting on Corbelli’s part makes the realisation of the Italian Girl’s spoof, which brings about the release of the Italians wholly believable. He achieves all this whilst having to tolerate one of the more idiosyncratic aspects of the production, that of being carried around on the shoulders of a strong man who is covered by the extra long Turkish robes that Taddeo wears as a Kaimakan. Camera-work, which includes a lot of close-ups, means 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 is a comic opera not a farsa. Regrettably, some of the visuals only just avoid the epithet ‘slapstick’. That being said it 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, is 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. His reading of the overture is most appealing with the, by now for Rossini, inevitable crescendo to go along with a tuneful brio. Using the lightly orchestrated critical edition helps. He keeps the whole opera zipping along in an ideal manner. The pictures of Paris’s wonderful Palais Garnier during the overture (CH. 2) are a glory.
Tancredi and L’Italiana 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 in this production do him justice.