FWO Archives: Rossini's "The Italian Girl In Algiers" (2004)
Composed in 1813 by Gioacchino Rossini, this drama giocoso masterpiece thrust the 21-year-old into operatic stardom, with its delightful overture, crowd-pleasing, fizzy energy, and madcap comic hijinks.
In Algiers, at the seaside palace of the bey Mustafá, his wife, Elvira, complains that her husband no longer loves her; her attendants reply there is nothing she can do. Mustafá himself bursts in. Asserting he will not let women get the better of him, he sends Elvira away when she complains. Mustafá says he has tired of his wife and will give her to Lindoro, a young Italian at the court, to marry. Then he orders Ali, a captain in his service, to provide an Italian woman for himself, someone more interesting than the girls in his harem, all of who bore him. Lindoro longs for his own sweetheart, Isabella, whom he lost when pirates captured him. Mustafá tells him he can have Elvira, insisting she possesses every virtue that Lindoro, in his attempt to escape Mustafá's connubial trap, has listed.
Elsewhere along the shore, a plane wreck is spotted in the distance, and Ali's pirates exult in the catch. Isabella arrives on shore, lamenting the cruelty of a fate that has interrupted her quest for her lost fiancé, Lindoro. Though in danger, she is confident of her skill in taming men. The pirates seize Taddeo, an aging admirer of Isabella's, and attempt to sell him into slavery, but he claims he is Isabella's uncle and cannot leave her. When the Turks learn that both captives are Italian, they rejoice in having found the new star for their leader's harem. Taddeo is aghast at the aplomb with which Isabella takes this news, but after a quarrel about his jealousy, they decide they had better face their predicament together.
Elvira's slave, Zulma, tries to reconcile Lindoro and her mistress to the fact that Mustafá has ordered them to marry. Mustafá promises Lindoro he may return to Italy -- if he will talze Elvira. Seeing no other way, Lindoro accepts, making it clear he might not marry Elvira until after they reach Italy. Elvira, however, loves her husband and sees no advantage in aiding Lindoro's escape. When Ali announces the capture of an Italian woman, Mustafá gloats in anticipation of conquest, then leaves to meet her. Lindoro tries to tell Elvira she has no choice but to leave her heartless husband.
In the main hall of his palace, hailed by eunuchs as "the scourge of women," Mustafá welcomes Isabella with ceremony. Aside, she remarks that he looks ridiculous and feels certain that she will be able to deal with him; he, on the other hand, finds her enchanting. As she seemingly throws herself on his mercy, the jealous Taddeo starts to make a scene and is saved only when she declares that he is her "uncle." Elvira and Lindoro, about to leave for Italy, come to say good-bye to the bey, and Lindoro and Isabella are stunned to recognize each other. To prevent Lindoro's departure, Isabella insists that Mustafá cannot banish his wife, adding that Lindoro must stay as her own personal servant. Between the frustration of Mustafá's plans and the happy but confused excitement of the lovers, everyone's head reels.
Elvira and various members of the court are discussing how easily the Italian woman has cowed Mustafá, giving Elvira hope of regaining his love. When Mustafá enters, however, it is to declare he will visit Isabella in her room for coffee. She comes out of her room, upset because Lindoro apparently broke faith with her by agreeing to escape with Elvira. Lindoro appears and reassures her of his loyalty. Promising a scheme for their freedom, Isabella leaves him to his rapturous feelings. After he too leaves, Mustafá reappears, followed by attendants with the terrified Taddeo, who is to be honored as the bey's Kaimakan, or personal bodyguard, in exchange for helping secure Isabella's affections. Dressed in Turkish garb, he sees no choice but to accept the compulsory honor.
In her apartment, Isabella dons Turkish clothes herself and prepares for Mustafá's visit, telling Elvira that the way to keep her husband is to be more assertive. As she completes her toilette, Isabella, knowing she is overheard by Mustafá in the background, sings a half-mocking invocation to Venus to help conquer her victim. To make him impatient, she keeps him waiting, as her "servant" Lindoro acts as go-between. At length she presents herself to the bey, who introduces Taddeo as his Kaimakan. Mustafá sneezes -- a signal for Taddeo to leave-but Taddeo stays, and Isabella invites Elvira to stay for coffee, to Mustafá's displeasure. When Isabella insists that he treat his wife gently, Mustafá bursts out in annoyance, while the others wonder what to make of his fulminations.
Elsewhere in the palace, Ali predicts that his master is no match for an Italian woman. As Lindoro and Taddeo plan their escape, Taddeo says he is Isabella's true love. Lindoro is amused but realizes he needs Taddeo's help in dealing with Mustafá, who enters, still furious. Lindoro says Isabella actually cares very much for the bey and wants him to prove his worthiness by entering the Italian order of Pappataci. Believing this to be an honor, Mustafá asks what he has to do. Simple, says Lindoro: eat, drink, and sleep all you like, oblivious to anything around you. Aside, Ali and Zulma wonder what Isabella is up to.
In her apartment, Isabella readies a feast of initiation for the bey, exhorting her fellow Italians to be confident. Mustafá arrives, and Lindoro reminds him of the initiation procedure. After he is pronounced a Pappataci, food is brought in, and he is tested by Isabella and Lindoro, who pretend to make love while Taddeo reminds Mustafá to ignore them. A hot-air balloon arrives in the background, and the lovers prepare to embark with other Italian captives, but Taddeo realizes that he too is being tricked and tries to rally Mustafá, who per sists in keeping his vow of paying no attention. When Mustafá finally responds, the Italians have the situation under control and bid a courteous farewell. Mustafá, his lesson learned, takes Elvira back, and everyone sings the praises of the resourceful Italian woman.
It might be said that the great Gioachino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868) conquered the world one city at a time.
Few artists from any field of creative endeavor have enjoyed a more celebrated life than Rossini. His operas made him a star in Italy in his early 20's and, for most of his life he was received like royalty wherever he traveled.
It would seem that Rossini's immortal operas are so good that nothing could have stopped Rossini from becoming lionized wherever operas were performed. But a closer look at how his career blossomed suggests that his rise to operatic superstardom was more methodical than might be expected. Because, either by good fortune or a grand design, Rossini was able to first make his name in the key opera cities of Italy and then use those successes as a springboard to propel him and his music triumphantly into the other major music capitals of his era, such as Vienna, London and Paris.
And L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) played a major role in the amazing (and geographically interesting) evolution of Rossini's reputation.
Rossini was born into humble circumstances in Pesaro, Italy. Both of his parents had some musical talent - his father played trumpet and his mother was a singer – but it was not an intensely musical family. Rossini's father, Giuseppe, had a number of jobs, including town crier and slaughterhouse inspector. He also held some views that tended to get him trouble with the authorities, so the family had to move around a great deal for financial and/ or political reasons. The young Rossini was put to work in a variety of unlikely jobs (it is pretty hard to imagine the future composer of The Barber of Seville working for a butcher, but he did) in an effort to bring in some money and settle down their unruly son. But his musical talent soon turned him away from sirloins and toward sonatas.
One of the first cities to play a role in Rossini's career was Bologna, where the family settled in 1804. Up to that point, the Rossini's had lived in small towns that offered few possibilities for their talented son. But in Bologna, he was able to begin his musical education in earnest with more accomplished teachers. There he was able to pursue a broad-based musical education that including instruction in singing, harpsichord and the cello. His earliest, on-the-job training in opera was as a repetiteur at local opera houses - a job that included playing for rehearsals and coaching the singers.
Having done about all that could be done in Bologna, Rossini was fortunate enough to be recommended to an opera producer in Venice at a time when the impresario badly needed a new composer to step in for one who had failed him. The 18-year-old Rossini was given a libretto and composed the music for the opera La cambiale di matrimonio, a one-act farce, in just a matter of days. It was presented in Venice in November 1810. This hasty work with an existing libretto for a Venice opera house was a pattern that would repeat itself three years later with L’ltaliana.
But before returning to complete his conquest of Venice, Rossini made an important stop in another Italian opera capital. By 1812, his reputation had grown to the point that he was commissioned to compose an opera for the legendary La Scala Opera in Milan. The resulting work, La pietra del paragone, was well received – so well, in fact, that it may have helped him avoid the draft. Legend has it that the local bureaucrat in charge of such matters was so taken with the opera that he exempted Rossini from mandatory military service (but another story contends that a girlfriend intervened successfully on his behalf, so take your pick).
Rossini's next Venice opera was Tancredi at La Fenice opera house. The enormous popularity of this serious opera (which was quite a departure from the popular farces that had dominated Rossini's output to this point) was a major turning point in the composer's career. It brought him great notoriety and established him as an important force in Italian opera.
It is in the wake of this great success that we find L’Italiano. In the period between March 1812 and February 1816, when The Barber of Seville debuted, Rossini composed 13 operas. It was in the heart of this white-hot period of creativity that L’Italiano was born under circumstances almost identical to those that surrounded his first opera.
An opera producer in Venice learned that a work he expected for the all-important carnival season (a period when opera houses and theatres ran day and night) would not be ready. He turned to Rossini, aflame in the glow of Tancredi. Rossini, who apparently understood that Tancredi had changed his market value, asked for a high fee and got it without argument. He then took a libretto that had been used in an earlier version of the same story and set it to music in less than a month (some accounts say it took him only 18 days).
L'Italiana debuted on May 22, 1813, just three months after Tancredi, and was a huge hit. But, perhaps because this comic opera emerged in the shadow of that major drama, it is not generally seen by today's audiences as being among Rossini's most significant operas.
The impact of L'Italiana on Rossini's career, however, would be difficult to overstate. Without the success of this opera, Tancredi may have been regarded as a fluke. But having enjoyed such success with two so completely different works, Rossini established himself as a rising opera composer of limitless potential. And, since I'Italiana was produced so quickly, it also demonstrated how facile a composer Rossini was. Everything about the birth of this opera had to impress opera producers all over Italy and cement his reputation as a composer. That may be why Rossini was able to survive some unsuccessful efforts that came in the months following L’Italiano and go on to compose his best known operas.
Rossini's next stop was Naples - an important opera center that, at that time, did not consider itself part of Italy. It was there, in 1815, that he met the impresario Domenico Barbaia, who would play a major role in Rossini's professional and personal life. Not only did Barbaia enter into a number of business dealings with Rossini (including partnerships in casinos operated in the opera houses), but his mistress, the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran, would later become Rossini's wife – apparently without any strain of relations between the two men.
Over the next few years, with Barbaia's guidance, Rossini won over the initially skeptical Neapolitan audience and further established himself with major productions in Rome, including The Barber of Seville.
During the next decade, Rossini continued to enjoy much more success than failure in the opera hall. And, after having taken Venice, Rome, Milan and Naples like an invading general, the jovial composer and his operas were warmly welcomed all over Europe.
Most of the final act in Rossini's life was played out in Paris - a city that was rapidly rising as a rival to Vienna for the title of Europe's greatest music capital. Rossini moved there in 1820 and was able to cut a deal with the French government that required him to write an opera a year for the Paris Opera. Then, after William Tell in 1829, Rossini stopped composing. He did, however, continue to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the City of Lights, which he supported by singing hits from this operas in the fashionable salons (parlor concerts in the homes of Paris' social elite) that were all the rage in that era.
There are a number of theories about why Rossini ceased to compose operas. One of the most prevalent is simply sloth. Rossini is often referred to as a lazy genius because he seemed to compose so offhandedly, often waiting until the very last minute to dash off a needed piece of music.
But the real reasons Rossini stopped composing are probably much more complex. The most credible theories concerning why he essentially retired at age 37 after having composed approximately 39 operas in 19 years cite a number of reasons. It is likely that even Rossini, for whom composing always seemed about as difficult as breathing, was just burned out after having written so many operas in such a short span of time. Public tastes were also changing, and some scholars feel Rossini was not changing with them. And, he was sick. Rossini probably contracted gonorrhea as a teenager and the disease caused him health problems for much of his adult life. The view that poor health played a role in his retirement is supported by the fact that, after several failed attempts, Rossini was cured late in his life and regained the personal and compositional vigor of his youth- although he produced no new operas.
So in the fascinating clutter of Rossini's personal and professional life, which requires a pretty good atlas to follow, L’ltaliana in Algeri sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. But it is clear that this comic adventure tale, which catered to the Venetian audience's love of exotic settings and stories in their operas, helped mark a major turning point in Rossini's career.
Dr. Punch Shaw is a writer, teacher and lecturer on various topics related to communications and the arts. He presents the pre-performance lectures for Fort Worth Opera, teaches courses at TCU, co-hosts a monthly lecture/ discussion group on classical music at Borders Books & Music and frequently contributes reviews and features to various publications, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
CAST AND CREATIVE
Featuring the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
Sung in Italian
CONDUCTOR Joseph Illick
DIRECTOR David Gately
SCENERY DESIGNED BY Robert Innes Hopkins
COSTUMES COORDINATED BY Alice Bristow
LIGHTING DESIGNED BY Marie Bridget Barrett
WIGS AND MAKEUP DESIGNED BY Steven W. Bryant
STAGE MANAGER Bethany Wright
CHORUS MASTER Tony Kostecki
PRINCIPAL ACCOMPANIST Mark Metcalf
CAST IN ORDER OF VOCAL APPEARANCE
ELVIRA Angela Turner Wilson
ZULMA Cindy Sadler
ALI David Giuliano
MUSTAFÁ Rod Nelman
LINDORO David Adams
ISABELLA Jennifer Dudley
TADDEO Corey Trahan