Rossini turns the ta­bles

L’ital­iana in Al­geri

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Venice.”

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.

IT

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

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