, July 2007
L'italiana in Algeri was Rossini’s first full-length comic masterpiece, written in less than a month for its 1813 premiere in Venice. The madcap antics of the blockheaded male chauvinist Bey, Mustafà, and the shipwrecked Italian girl, Isabella, who tames him, are set to some of Rossini’s most buoyant writing (along with two arias farmed out to lesser composers). With sharp musical characterizations and masterful patter numbers (especially the “din din din” finale in Act I and the “Pappataci” scene), the opera survives all sorts of staging concepts.
Director Andrei Serban and set and costume designer Marina Draghici presented the work at the Paris Opera in 1998, and this live video recording is fun and frothy, boasting a first-rate Rossinian cast, so vocally assured that they throw themselves easily and successfully into the outrageous comic-book style of the production. Only occasionally do ensembles get off to a shaky start; more precision from conductor Bruno Campanella might have made the difference.
The setting has been updated to a circa 1950 Arab state, where the Bey’s neglected wife (nimble soprano Jeanette Fischer) has her bleached-blond hair and pointy red fingernails attended to a by a bung of half-naked eunuchs. (The male chorus wears gigantic body suits of sweaty, sagging pecs and enormous put-bellies.) The arrival of a svelte, quick-witted Italian girl (the superb Jennifer Larmore, outfitted like Mata Hari with fedora, long shiny black hair and a matching black-leather trench coat) sets the court on its ear.
Simone Alaimo is a delightful, vocally precise Mustafà, oblivious and self-centered and looking dapper in all of his many outfits; Bruce ford brings a wide-eyed charm and nimble voice to Lindoro, the long-lost boyfriend Isabella has been looking for on the seas. The comic skills and subtle physical humor of Alessandro Corbelli make Taddeo, Isabella’s long-suffering “protector,” especially sympathetic.
Much of the visual humor is on the level of the horny, single-minded Bey, who tries to impress Isabella with her tiger skins and a pet zebra. A gorilla wanders in and out, further suggesting Mustafà’s animal nature; in case we don’t know where thus guy’s mind really is, Isabella’s arrival at court is accompanied by a gigantic pair of boobs flying above the stage. It’s all wildly colorful and enormously silly, down to the gigantic dancing pizza that accompanies Isabella’s final showpiece, a patriotic aria in praise of Italy.