ROSSINI: The Italian in Algiers (2006)

by | Jul 28, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

ROSSINI: The Italian in Algiers (2006)

Performers: Soloists/ Schoenberg Choir/ Mahler Chamber Orchestra/ Riccardo Frizza
Studio: Bel Air Classiques BAC025 [Dist. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 widescreen color
Audio: DTS 5.1; DD 5.1; PCM stereo
No region coding
Length: 135 minutes
Rating: *****

Composed in 1813 in anywhere from 18 to 27 days depending on your choice of biographers (Rossini naturally claimed 18 days), L’Italiana in Algeri premiered at the Teatro San Benedetto, Venice in May of that year. With text by Angelo Anelli, the 21 year old Rossini labeled the opera a dramma giocoso similar to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but its strong farcical elements make it a pure, sparkling opera buffa. The first of Rossini’s comic operas to acquire a lasting place in the repetoire, it still manages to amuse regardless of how well acquainted with it you are. The plot is delightfully idiotic, the music a bubbly confection of memorable tunes that its first auditors hummed throughout Europe, insuring Rossini’s fame as a composer. In no other work does Rossini exploit the comic possibilities of nonsense words as effectively as he does here in several patter songs. The stupendous ensemble finale of Act One is a brilliant example of this: it is a masterful mixture of musical verve and verbal craziness embedded in a trademark Rossini vocal crescendo. Those first audiences must have been stunned by the opera’s novelty.

Unlike the three-dimensional living presence that inhabits each role created by Mozart for his magisterial Da Ponte trilogy of operas, in L’Italiana in Algeri the characters are merely sketched. Rossini draws them deftly, with a caustic accuracy bordering on caricature. The life depicted here is sharp-angled, idiosyncratic and psychologically motile. A successful performance of this opera requires a strange bi-polar mixture of frenzy and calm, often in the very same scene. Tipping into either extremity does severe damage to the opera’s equilibrium, much to the detriment of a performance. Like walking a tightrope, performers must maintain an acrobatic balance if they wish to portray Rossini’s mixture of comic mayhem and its serious consequences. This DVD presentation of the opera, filmed in July 2006 for the Festival d’Aix-en-provence in France, manages the balancing act with masterful agility. The result is a superb L’Italiana in Algeri: funny, touching, satirical and heart-warming by turns, it is an entertainment of the highest order.

The cast is brilliant, with an especially amusing performance as the somewhat addled, all-powerful Bey Mustafa by bass Marco Vinco. As his love for his wife Eivira (soprano Elisaveta Martirosyan in a poignant performance) wanes, his desire for shipwrecked Isabella (contralto/mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn, who is excellent) grows exponentially. She loves Lindoro (tenor Maxim Mironov) who, amazingly, has just recently been captured and enslaved by the Bey. The means by which Elvira is reunited in love with Mustafa, and those who have been captured regain their freedom, involves much delirious absurdity and inspired lunacy, all of it funny. It includes a great deal of Monty Pythonesque insanity surrounding the nonsense word “Pappataci”, a title conferred upon Bey Mustafa that is meant as an emblem of glory but which actually means “eat and shut up”. All of these events are portrayed with rare comedic skill, as wonderfully directed by Toni Servillo. The acting and singing by the entire cast is splendid. The stage design is spartan, containing a single three-level wooden structure set at an angle which functions variously as a ship’s prow, Mustafa’s castle, a harem and all of the character’s apartments. The costumes are traditional and quite beautiful in their simple utility. It is the simplicity of this production, beautifully filmed in high definition, coupled with the inspired brilliance of the performances, that make this version of Rossini’s youthful shout of joy my current favorite of the opera.

The music is splendidly performed by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Riccardo Frizza and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. The Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 sound is spacious and clear, enabling a precise illusion of stage movement. The PCM stereo sound removes some of the air between the voices, substituting an increased richness, deeper bass and greater depth to the music. All three soundfields produce an image of stunning clarity, a feeling of “live” presence that is warmly satisfying. As if by magic, the naturalness of the sound is paired with the simple organic nature of the performances and stage presentation to produce an opera DVD that glows like a speciman of rare earth.

– – Mike Birman


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