Gioacchino Rossini wrote serious comic opera that is still relevant

Anyone who pays at least some minimal attention to the surface sheen of contemporary Italian politics will know about the antics of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. His wife’s public disowning of him, his intimate interest in chorus girls and other female entertainers five or so decades his juniors, the pool-side parties of poor taste and less clothing at his various mansions, and so on, have all made the headlines recently.

A slightly greater acquaintance with Italian public life reveals the Prime Minister as the billionaire owner of most of Italy’s popular (a limp term in this context) media, in particular television. Press a little further and you find a man willing (quite openly and for a while successfully) to change the law to legalise corruption among his colleagues and close associates. It is some years since The Economist asked on its front page whether this was a man fit to govern Italy; a question that has since been answered more than once.

Much of this might be seen as contemporary opera buffa. Indeed this is how it is presented in the British satirical magazine Private Eye, where an occasional column casts Berlusconi as a fatuous Robber Baron lead baritone singing ludicrous duets and trios with other comics of modern day political chaos such as Gaddafi. “La Donna e Mobile (I can ring up for some more girls)” etc. This is the context in which the recent NBR New Zealand opera production of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri might best be seen.

But first, let’s be clear about the title: An Italian Girl in Algiers is a mistranslation bequeathed to us from the 19th century. The words actually mean The Italian Woman in Algiers—which is rather different—and which is born out by the wiles and talents of Isabella, the woman of the title, whose skills are not to be diminished as girlish. No ragazza she. This was a co-production with Scottish opera which could perhaps only have been improved by changing the title to An Algerian Woman in Milan, since the settings and production values all suggested that the opera was actually set in Italy and not in Algeria.

Furthermore, the television studio set-up not only emphasised a connection to Berlusconi himself (the Bey of Italy which he so often resembles) but also captured with telling accuracy the truly awful character of much Italian television: its vulgarity, salacity—not to say pornography—and unremitting contempt for anything approaching decency or honesty. Which brings us to the opera itself which, in this production, was stunningly good.

Wendy Dawn Thompson was brilliant as Isabella, and everyone around her, in particular Conal Coad as the absurd Bey Mustafa, all rose to the occasion, and gave as entertaining an account of the opera as might have been wished for. This was particularly welcome because although L‘Italiana in Algeri is always considered to be comic opera, admittedly of a high musical quality, it has darker and more serious undertones which this production managed to preserve and communicate.

It is often said that Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) represents the apogee of comic opera in the Italian style. I’m not sure why this is because all of the standard reference works that I know, and all of the analysis of his work that has been carried out in the last 30 years—more or less since the creation of the first annual Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro (his natal town in the Marche) in 1980—emphasise his seriousness both as composer and as dramatist. It is true that he has a great sense of fun in music, well illustrated in L’Italiana by the ‘Pappataci’ trio, and that this fun can be carried into the hilarious, as in the ‘cra cra, bum bum, din din, tac tac’ of the first Finale of the same opera, but these immensely enjoyable elements are nevertheless at the service of a serious
aesthetic and dramatic purpose.

This opera was originally described as a dramma giocoso when it had its first
performance in Venice in 1913, not at the Fenice but at the Teatro S Benedetto, and not at Carnival time in early February, but much later on 22 May. In its time, and on the surface, it appeared to feed a number of popular stereotypes about the dangers posed, particularly for women, by North African/Middle Eastern social and religious practices—slavery, kidnapping, the harem, and so on—and then made fun of them. It is jocular, but a drama even so.

And the drama is all about local, that is to say Italian, misconceptions. The Bey, portrayed as a buffoon, is easily fooled in the end, so can hardly represent much of a threat. The stereotypes are shown as absurd, and in this way the table is turned on local prejudice. This aspect of the opera was very skillfully pointed up in this production, where the setting was obviously Italy, not Algeria, and the sordid practices being lampooned those of the current Italian elite. (It is true that a contemporary Algerian setting would be far, far darker).

There are other features of the opera that (as with great stage drama, for instance The Taming of the Shrew) demand that we take it seriously as comedy even as it makes us laugh. There is a serious intent, and the intention is that we should turn in on ourselves and ask some awkward questions about motivation as well as prejudice. In this way we can see that Rossini was not the mere opera buffa entertainer that earlier critics made him out to be, nor the culmination of an eighteenth century mode of operatic composition, but the precursor (as he was seen to be by Meyerbeer, even Berlioz, and then Verdi) of a new and altogether grander conception of operatic performance. Laughter was one good medium for the serious purpose on which he was launched, even as an adolescent.

Delightful music is another. Rossini was a youthful master of the score, despite an early distaste for the study of counterpoint, and it was a mastery that this production did everything it could to illustrate. To say that he was a prodigy is understatement. And it was a prodigality that led first to the brilliant career of his twenties in the regional opera houses of a divided Italy, to a triumphant and financially successful period as director of the Théâtre Italien in Paris from 1824, and to a later career as composer of drawing room pieces and religious works.

We were fortunate recently to be introduced to this later side of Rossini by a visit to Wellington of the young Italian tenor Filippo Adami, who gave two concerts of works by Rossini for solo voice. The one performance that I was lucky enough to hear—at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery on 6 May—included an aria from the opera Il Turco in Italia, four delightful drawing-room songs, and a piece titled The lament of the muses on the death of Lord Byron which Rossini composed and first performed in London in 1824 shortly after Byron’s death. Adami was accompanied in this moving and well-chosen piece by six students from the School of Music with whom he had earlier taken some master classes.

We had Jeremy Commons, who has done so much over the past thirty years to stimulate and sustain opera in New Zealand, as well as NBR New Zealand Opera and Wendy Dawn Thompson and colleagues, to thank for further enlarging our pleasure as well as our understanding of Rossini as one of the great musical innovators.

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