Sunday, July 10, 2011


.       From the left to the right.  Michele Pertusi (Mustafà), Vincenzo Taormina (Taddeo), Lawrence Brownlee (Lindoro), Anita Rachvelishvili (Isabella), Pretty Yende (Elvira), Valeria Tornatore (Zulma)

Reviewed by James Karas

Algiers is facing a serious problem!

Mustafa, its chief honcho, is tired of his wife and he wants a replacement. Even though he has a seraglio full of choices, he will not settle for anything but the best. As the whole world knows (ahem), when it comes to the best only an Italian woman will do.

As luck would have it, there is a shipwreck and a juicy Italian morsel lands on Mustafa’s doorstep and we are in business. Even luckier for us Gioachino Rossini gets wind of the story and composes a comic opera called L’Italiana in Algeri which La Scala has revived for those who have made a turn towards Milan this summer.

This is a remounting of a production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle that was first staged in 1973 and was last revived in 2003. But let’s get on with our story.

The lady that lands on Mustafa’s door is called Isabella, she is Italian, she is the best, and is sung by Anita Rachvelishvili. The Georgian soprano has a lustrous voice that can reach down to some low notes and sound throaty at times. She does not quite match the description of a sexy woman but she does a good job with what she has.

Now Mustafa, (how shall I put this delicately), has the hots for her. Bass Michele Pertusi has a fine voice and does an excellent job as the would-be tough but somewhat buffoonish potentate. He has no respect for women or much else that does not please him but the Italians, being the best, will give him a lesson that he will not forget.

In order to make room for Isabella on the matrimonial bed, Mustafa plans to give his wife to another Italian prisoner named Lindoro. With a name like that you know he is an expert lover, a marvelous tenor and Italian par excellence. (How do you say that in Italian?) Tenor Lawrence Brownlee fits that description in his singing and acting if not in his national background. Alas, he is American. But you know that Lindoro will get the girl as soon as he enters, soaring vocally with “Languir per una bella,” his first cavatina. Brownlee has a slightly annoying habit of rising on his toes when he hits high notes and the director should tell him to knock it off. But no one can argue with the gorgeous voice that can reach high notes with supreme ease.

We need a comic sidekick and that is provided by Taddeo, Isabella’s companion from the shipwreck. Italian baritone Vincenzo Taormina has the vocal ability to handle the role but he falls a bit short on the comic angle. He is not a natural comic and the director has simply not provided him with enough business for him to be funny.

South African soprano Pretty Yende sings the role of Elvira, the-wife-to-be-got-rid-of with vocal agility.
Ponnelle’s production is a traditional and solid staging of the opera which is not produced all that often. I saw the 173rd performance at La Scala where it was first produced in 1815. The sets with the rounded arches suggest an Eastern setting but there is no obvious opulence. The stage is rarely brightly lit and the impression is that of Mustafa’s palace that has seen better days or is ecologically a tad too prudent.

Rossini could compose gorgeous melodies at will. This is evident in L’Italiana where arias, duets, trios, quartets, quintets and choruses come pouring in. What Rossini lacked was a good libretto. There is no sub-plot and the thin story of this clever Italian woman outwitting the doltish Mustafa, wears pretty thin. Rossini never found a Lorenzo da Ponte the way Mozart did for his great operas.

The opera is a paean to Italy and Italians, especially Italian women. In the second act, Rossini and his librettist Angelo Anelli quite forget that they are writing a comic opera and go into full-fledged patriotic singing for la patria and about how brave, courageous and wonderful Italians are. Who are we to disagree.
Incidentally, the Italian flag is visible around every corner in Italy these days and for good reason. Italy is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its unification and some patriotic fervor is surely a propos. Rossini provided some of that fervor almost fifty years before the event and La Scala has chosen to raise the flag as well.

L’Italiana in Algeri by Gioachino Rossini opened on June 30 for eight performances until July 14, 2011 at Teatro alla Scala, Milan.

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