Rossini turns the tables
L’italiana in Algeri
Gioachino Rossini had retired from writing operas for almost three-and-a-half decades when, in 1863, he produced his Petite Messe solennelle (Little Solemn Mass), a sacred work he described as “the last sin of my old age.” He was then seventy-one years old and on the verge of his seventeenth birthday; the fact that he was born on Feb. 29 brought him predictable delight. He had not lost his vaunted sense of humor, which would remain with him until he died five years later. The wits of Paris soon remarked that the Petite Messe solennelle was neither petite nor solemn, which is pretty much what one might have expected from its good-humored composer, who fed on irony along with impressive quantities of food and wine. He added a postscript to his Little Solemn Mass, in the form of a prayer: “Thou knowest, O Lord, that I was born to write opera buffa. Rather little skill, a bit of heart, and that’s all. So be Thou blessed and admit me to Paradise.” Judged by his contributions to opera buffa, he just may have gotten past St. Peter’s check-in desk, although he did have a large repertoire of peccadilloes to answer for.
He had earned his semi-retirement, having produced 39 operas in 19 years, from his small-scale comedy
La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract) in 1810 through to his massive Guillaume Tell (William Tell) in 1829. The great majority of them scored successes, and some had become international smash hits. They ranged in their emotional terrain from what he called dramas, like Otello or Maometto II, to melodramas like La donna del lago (The Lady of the Lake), to jocular dramas like La Cenerentola (Cinderella), to comedies like Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), to the “tragical sacred theatre-piece” Mosè
in Egitto (Moses in Egypt), with many gradations of operatic genres between. He had proved himself extraordinarily expert and fecund across the operatic spectrum. But when all is said and done, it is hard to argue with his self-assessment. Comic opera — opera buffa — was his greatest gift.
His “jocular drama” L’italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) arrived early in his career, in 1813. Surprisingly, its creation resulted from one of his relatively scarce operatic failures. He had achieved particular popularity in Venice, where La cambiale di
matrimonio had launched his career, but the city did not embrace his comic opera La pietra del paragone (The Touchstone) when it opened there, at the Teatro San Benedetto, in April 1813, seven months after its world premiere at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. The impresario at the San Benedetto quickly pulled it from the boards and found himself in a precarious financial situation since he had a cast of singers under contract. He had to get another piece on the stage as soon as possible, and so he turned to the twenty-one-year-old Rossini — notwithstanding that it was the failure of a Rossini production that was the immediate cause of the San Benedetto’s predicament. Still, apart from that one flop, Rossini was generally riding a wave of success, the more so since his “heroic melodrama”
Tancredi scored triumphs that February at Venice’s lofty Teatro La Fenice and in March at the opera house of Ferrara.
An agreement was quickly drawn up, and Rossini got to work on his new opera, L’italiana in Algeri, crafted to spotlight the same cast of singing stars. To save time, he was furnished with a pre-existing libretto by Angelo Anelli. The libretto had been created for an opera by the less celebrated Luigi Mosca, who had unveiled his setting in 1806 in Milan. Quite a lot of modifications were made to Anelli’s script, at least partly (it now appears) by Anelli himself. In just 27 days, the two acts of L’italiana were complete, totaling nearly two and a half hours of music.
may strike us as an astonishing feat, but this was not all that unusual a pace for Rossini at that point in his career. When facing a challenging deadline, Rossini very often pillaged scores he had already written, adapting at least a few passages of music to fit new words. In the case of L’italiana in
Algeri, however, every note is original. (Possibly a very few recitatives were farmed out to helpers, but not more than that.) In truth, it amounts to only fiveand-a-half minutes of completed score per day, which is not an inconceivable pace given the transparency of Rossini’s style during the 1810s. The fact is that a frenetic pace was his norm as he moved through his journeyman period; L’italiana in Algeri was the seventh opera he unveiled in 14 months. So it was that the curtain went up on L’italiana in
Algeri on May 22, 1813, at the Teatro San Benedetto in Venice, where it ran until the end of the opera season in late June. Its popularity swelled with momentum. Critics fell all over themselves. “Mr. Rossini’s music,” exclaimed one of Venice’s newspapers, “must be added to the many examples that we have of this fiery genius, who, having begun his career with brilliance, follows at a galloping pace along the path of the most sublime masters of the art. But for the fact that one finds in this music the traits that are distinctive to this composer, one would hardly be able to believe that he could have accomplished in a mere 27 days such an excellent piece of work, one that has aroused the most lively enthusiasm in a public that cannot be fooled.”
The plot that so entranced the Venetian public was both familiar and not. L’italiana
in Algeri belongs to a theatrical tradition
that was much visited in the late 18th and early 19th century: the cultural conflict that arose between European Christians and North African (or Turkish) Muslims. The treatments were almost always based on no more than exoticizing fantasy, and modern viewers may wince at some of their clichéd assumptions. The Europeans are in general sophisticated and “civilized,” the North Africans not so much. Nonetheless, a common turn of plot would demonstrate that the Turks/Africans might show generosity of spirit after all, and even a deeper wisdom than many of the Europeans.
In a typical plot, a European woman would be unhappily imprisoned in a sultan’s harem, from which she will be rescued by her European suitor. One of the things that viewers found so delightful about L’italiana
in Algeri was that Rossini reversed the key relationship in the plot. Instead of the helpless woman being imprisoned by the sultan, it is the man, Lindoro, who is enslaved. The sultan has lost interest in his own wife, so he decides to marry her off to Lindoro, who is aghast. It is Lindoro’s girlfriend, the intrepid Elvira, who sets out from Italy to win him back and arrives at her destination when she is cast ashore after a shipwreck. (In Santa Fe Opera’s production, the action is transposed to the era of daring aviatrices, and she survives a crash landing.) After many twists and turns, Elvira whisks Lindoro back to Europe and everything is set aright. Indeed, it is not just the plot that turns the tables, switching the accustomed roles of the leading male and female characters. Rossini also plays tricks with his music, sometimes pulling the carpet out from beneath listeners’ expectations by penning musical passages that tell a quite different story from the words that are being sung. As Rossini operas go, this one is far from the least subtle.
More than two centuries have passed since L’italiana in Algeri first had operagoers rolling in the aisles, and of course cultural sensitivities have changed a great deal since then. People who decide to take umbrage at this opera’s lack of cultural sensitivity will have plenty of ammunition, but the piece skates so lightly across the surface that many people will be able to just smile along with it and accept it as the period piece it is. Laughing at the sticky situations engendered by cultural divides was a favorite occupation of authors and opera-composers, an exercise that was in every way fictional and in no way documentary. We might do well to imagine ourselves in the Venice of 1813, in the presence of an exorbitantly clever twenty-one-year-old whose career was growing by leaps and bounds. The French novelist Stendhal, a fervent Rossini fan, wrote an extended analysis of L’italiana in Algeri that may help us seize that moment: “When [Rossini] composed L’italiana in Algeri, he was in the full flower of his youth and genius; he was not afraid to repeat himself; he felt no urge to create powerful music; his home was the delightful province of Venetia, the gayest land in all Italy, if not all the world, and assuredly the least tainted with pedantry. … In L’italiana, the prayers of the people of Venice were abundantly granted; no race did ever witness an entertainment better suited to its own character; and, of all the operas which were ever composed, none was more truly destined to be the joy and delight of