I have exceedingly fond memories of L’Italiana in Algeri – possibly the best among the best by Italy’s comic genius – dating from my childhood. Gioachino Rossini was dubbed “the Italian Mozart” thanks to his gift for melody and ability to churn out scores with the greatest of ease. The comparison also befits the boy who so adored Mozart’s music that he was called Il Tedeschino (the little German) at the conservatory.
This opera belongs to a tradition of works with an East-meets-West theme and even the liberation-from-the-seraglio subgenre. The long line of works in this tradition includes other comedies, as we can see in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. However, while comedy is often subversive, note the further subversive plot twist in this libretto: In L’Italiana, it is the girl that rescues the boy from captivity.
The librettist subtitled the work dramma giocosa, a characterization that brings to mind Mozart’s Don Giovanni. But L’Italiana lacks the serious messages – the social commentary – that surround the laughs in Giovanni. L’Italiana more resembles Rossini’s own Il barbiere di Siviglia, labeled a commedia: The sincerity of Lindoro resembles what we find in Il barbiere’s Almaviva, for example, while Isabella’s patriotic speech in the last act of L’Italiana is not going to resonate in quite the same way as it most certainly did with Rossini’s audiences. One’s first guess is that the two composer-librettist teams saw the term dramma giocosa differently.
But history amplifies our understanding. The prominent bel canto authority Philip Gossett, who was part of the editorial committee for Ricordi’s current critical edition, tells me that the characterization of the libretto dates from the original. That original was, in fact, a massive rewrite – words and music – of an earlier work by another composer, also characterized as dramma giocosa. If the contemporaneous reviews are to be believed, the works were truly two different operas. Also, as is common in the history of opera, Rossini’s work underwent further modifications in subsequent productions. Still, the subtitle to the earlier opera, by Luigi Mosca, lingered on.
Audiences at the Florentine, therefore, will find L’Italiana more like Il barbiere than like Don Giovanni, especially since some of the most clownish approaches to Il barbiere have fallen by the wayside. It is to be noted, however, that in L’Italiana, there is some ambiguity about who is the funny man. Of course, it very much depends on the talents of the singers engaged. I have seen Mustafa performed entirely straight with Taddeo as the comic. If Mustafa has comic gifts, Taddeo’s part must be recalibrated, at least a little. For the conductor, there are certainly moments where it matters. A small example: Mustafa’s entrance can be a straight, virtuoso showpiece. However, there is a brief moment of complete silence – a rest – embedded in it, and that rest may be extended a bit for any comic business that Mustafa has to perform.
Apart from attending to a handful of stage concerns, the purely musical issues are similar to those we encounter in Mozart’s work. Everything has to sound crystalline and easy, as dancing on one’s toes looks easy when done by the best. The music is not tremendously tricky, as in Richard Strauss’s works. But precision is important and virtually every note is what we call “exposed.” Without immaculate execution – and this hinges greatly on the right tempo and propulsion from section to section – the whole thing can fizzle rather badly. It is said that comedy is hard; actually, it is fragile: The mood can be shattered in a heartbeat, and timing is everything.
L’Italiana in Algeri, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and La Cenerentola are Rossini’s three comic masterpieces. It is said that Arturo Toscanini eschewed conducting Il barbiere because it had become so laden with bad ideas that had become tradition. L’Italiana benefits somewhat from relatively less of this phenomenon than Il barbiere. At the same time, however, traditions are accruing around all works constantly. So, it is always wise to refresh one’s memory by carefully reexamining the score.
I conducted my first L’Italiana, directed by Leon Major, for the Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center in 1985 (repeated in 1987). For my third L’Italiana in 1994 at the Florentine¸ I can add the warm memory of Viveca Genaux’s first professional engagement to the usual delights of conducting this opera.
I was privileged to be able to discuss this score with my uncle, Nicola Rescigno, before my first L’Italiana. I now benefit from having inherited his copy of the score, which sits beside the one I purchased. (His, in fact, is a printer’s proof, something publishers make available to experts in the field when a book or a score is nearly ready to be placed on the presses.) Such a score confers an immortality something akin to that which other performers achieve with film and recordings. For a conductor to be able to pore over a respected colleague’s markings and marginal notes is to have a direct connection to that person and his or her experience and judgment.
Nicola had introduced me to L’Italiana when I was but twelve years old. It was the inaugural production of the Dallas Civic Opera (as the city’s opera company was then known), which he conducted following a concert starring Maria Callas the night before. The cast was most impressive with Giulietta Simionato as Isabella, Nicola Monti as Lindoro, Paolo Montarsolo as Mustafa, and Giuseppe Taddei as Taddeo. These were masters of their art. But I must also give credit for the hilarity I still remember to a stage director making his American debut: Franco Zeffirelli.
L’Italiana was not widely performed at that time. But my uncle had always taken an interest in early music. He had conducted little-performed works of the Italian repertory for some years in Rome, New York, Chicago, and elsewhere. These included Claudio Monteverdi’s music through that of Domenico Cimarosa. So, for him, it was no great leap to this early work by Gioachino Rossini. (Rossini was an already successful composer of twenty-one when he wrote this opera, which premiered in 1813. But by the 1950s, little besides Il barbiere di Siviglia was performed, especially in the United States.)
Now that more of Rossini’s works are heard more widely, there rages a healthy debate about their relative virtues. For me, L’Italiana stands up very well. The sparkling ensemble that ends Act I is typical Rossini. But it is also, perhaps, the best of its kind that he ever wrote. And the duet of Mustafa and Lindoro evinces inspiration at the highest level. We can only hope that Rossini’s serious operas will increasingly be heard as interest in opera – including early opera – continues to grow. Semiramide and Tancredi reach the stage a bit; but Otello, Mosè in Egitto, and Guillaume Tell deserve far more attention here in the United States.