Online opera guide and synopsis to Gioacchino Rossini’s L’ITALIANA IN ALGERI
The music of the Italiana in Algeri is gorgeous and sparkles with wit and melody. The finale of the first act can be considered the invention of slapstick comedy par excellence and for the female lead role Rossini created the vocal type of the coloratura mezzo-soprano, to which he will create further monuments a few years later with Rosina from Barber and Angelina from Cenerentola.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I (The abduction)
♪ Act II (The escape)
♪ Nella testa ho un campanello (Crescendo Act I)
Roles and Synopsis
The main roles
Mustafà, Bey of Algiers (bass) - Elvira, wife of Mustafà (soprano) - Zulma, slave of Elvira (mezzo-soprano) - Haly, captain of the Algerian corsairs (bass) - Lindoro, prisoner and slave of Mustafà - Isabella, Italian and lover of Lindoro (mezzo-soprano) - Taddeo, companion of Isabella (bass)
DG, Agnes Baltsa, Enzo Dara, Ruggero Raimondi and Frank Lopardo under the baton of Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic and the State Opera Chorus
Rossini’s breakthrough as a composer
The composition of the Italiana in Algeri brought Gioacchino Rossini’s final breakthrough as an opera composer in 1813, the year Wagner and Verdi were born, when he was only 21 years old. Together with his opera seria Tancredi, this work finally brought Rossini’s name to the front ranks of opera composers in 1813. During these years Rossini worked like an obsessed: already the year before six operas were brought to life and in 1813 we count another four works. His enormous working tempo is legendary. After the success of the world premiere of Tancredi at the Venetian Opera in February, the same month Rossini was asked to contribute another work at short notice. He immediately got down to work and seems to have put this opera on paper in the space of less than a month, without having to resort to earlier works. Already in May the premiere of the opera took place, which became a great success for the still young composer.
Due to the lack of time, Rossini recycled an opera subject that had been set to music by another composer 5 years earlier, which also led to some dispute (see the section on “Pensa alla patria” below). The librettist of the work was Angelo Anelli, it deals with the abduction of Italians by corsairs to Algeria and their rescue.
The parallel to Mozart‘s „Entführung aus dem Serail“
The parallels between the two works are striking, the plot and the subject of the two operas are almost identical. In the decade before the composition year of Mozart’s opera of 1782, everything Turkish was en vogue in Europe, commemorating the last siege of Vienna by the Turks 100 years earlier. The tenor of the commemoration was a mixture of mockery (the Ottoman Empire had largely dissolved) and fascination for the exotic beauty of the Moorish culture. Twenty years later, Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt during the turn of the century was a new trigger for interest in the subject of this culture. Levantine tales of pirates were popular novel subjects, piracy was indeed the order of the day in North Africa at this time and the ransoming of abducted Europeans was quite common.
The overture with the surprise effect
The overture is one of the famous Rossini introduction and is often played in concerts. It begins with a quiet pizzicato and surprises the listener after a few bars with a fortissimo. Rossini was an admirer of Haydn and was inspired to create this effect by the composer of the Surprise Symphony.
Introduzione – Prêtre
Elvira is in a depressed mood
Synopsis: At the palace of the Bey. Elvira, the ruler’s wife sits on a sofa with her servant Zulma. She is depressed, she feels that her husband doesn’t love her anymore.
Serenate il mesto ciglio – Giulini
Mustafa complains about his wife
Synopsis: When Mustafa appears, he complains about the arrogance of women and does not want to hear anything more about his wife Elvira.
Delle donne l’arroganza – Ganzarolli
Synopsis: Mustafa plans to pass his wife on to the Slave Lindoro. He throws everyone out of the hall except Haly. He commissions the captain of his corsairs to capture one of the dashing Italian women, who makes the men’s hearts beat faster. She shall serve as substitute for his wife.
Lindoros despair – The Cavatina with the many high C’s
Synopsis: The palace also houses the slave Lindoro, an Italian who was captured three months earlier. He longs for his mistress in Italy.
As one of the leading roles Lindoro gets a big appearance scene in the form of a “Scena ed aria”. This consists of a slow cavatina (“Languir per una bella”) and a fast caballetta (“Se inclinassi a prender moglie”).
With the elegiac cavatina of Lindoro, Rossini presents a thoughtful character. Lindoro and Isabella are the only characters in the opera who embody both serious and cheerful aspects, thus gaining depth and standing above all other characters in Rossini’s hierarchy..
The elegy of Lindoro is introduced with a beautiful French horn melody. This cavatina is a veritable par force ride for the tenor. It is written in a very high tessitura; the tenor sings constantly above the F and often even in the regions of C and D. There are also many intricate ornaments and scales.
We hear Juan Diego Florez, the Rossini tenor of the 21st century. His technique is outstanding and he masters this aria with a perfection that is captivating. He produces his high notes seemingly effortlessly and the ornaments are perfect
Languir per una bella – Florez
Synopsis: Lindoro learns from Mustafà that he will get married to Elvira. Lindoro is desperate, he tries to talk his way out of it by trying to make the Bey understand that he is very picky with women. But Mustafa explains that the future wife has all the nice qualities.
In this aria we hear Luigi Alva, one of the great Rossini tenors of the seventies, like Florez also a Peruvian.
Se inclinassi a prender moglie – Alva/Corena
As a second variation we hear the interpretation by Juan Diego Florez.
Se inclinassi a prender moglie – Florez / Doss
Isabella is captured – Rossini “invents” the coloratura mezzo-soprano
Synopsis: Meanwhile, Haly and his corsairs came across an Italian ship that was the victim of a storm. They rob all the belongings and arrest the people on the ship. Among the women captured is Isabella. She is the mistress of Lindoro. She had set out to free her lover from captivity. Now she herself has fallen into the hands of the Musulmans. It is clear to her that she must now keep a cool head and use the weapons of the women skilfully.
Isabella too gets a great Scena ed aria for her first appearance. Rossini wrote the role of Isabella for a mezzo-soprano with great coloratura skills. The first Isabella was Marietta Marconi, rumored to be a lover of Rossini. A few years later Maria Malibran entered his life and was the singer of his choice when he wrote The Barber. The Malibran too was a coloratura mezzo and she too became his mistress. In 1822 they even became husband and wife. After Isabella and Rosina, Rossini wrote another great role for this fach with the Angelina of “La cenerentola”. These roles influenced history of opera for the following years. With the advent of verismo towards the end of the nineteenth century, this type of music went out of fashion and almost all of Rossini’s bel canto operas disappeared from the repertoire. With Conchita Supervias Isabella in the twenties and Maria Callas Rosina in the fifties, a veritable Rossini renaissance began in the 20 th century, followed with names such as Teresa Berganza, Agnes Baltsa, Lucia Valenti-Terrani, etc.
Using the example of the slow Cavatina (also called cantabile) “Cruda sorte” we hear Rossini’s coloratura music. Coloraturas are not only technical specifications (a fast sequence of tones with short note values of equal length), but there is a whole music culture behind it, which is rooted in his bel canto. Its artistry has been developed and enhanced over more than a hundred years by the castrati, among others.
Marylin Horn was also one of the singers who fired up the Rossini Renaissance with her artistry. Her coloratura technique was masterly. The lightness and perfection of her voice can be admired in the following excerpt. Many experts consider her to be the most technically perfect coloratura singer of the post-war period.
Cruda sorte … Gia so per pratica – Horne
You will hear a second interpretation of this piece by Jennifer Larmore. The American from the southern states impresses with vocal power and coloratura skills.
Cruda sorte … Gia so per pratica – Larmore
Isabella struggles with her lover Taddeo
Synopsis: Isabella is accompanied on her journey by her stubborn admirer Taddeo. Isabella passes him off as her uncle. When Haly learns that Isabella is Italian, he tells her that she will be the Bey’s chosen one and that she will be taken to his seraglio. The jealous Taddeo curses the fate that has brought them into the hands of the Bey. But the two must buck up and go through the adventure together.
For this performance of the two captured Italians, Rossini wrote a magnificent duet. It gives the two characters a great opportunity to stage their art of singing skilfully and effectively to the most beautiful music. We hear 2 interpretations from 2 different epochs.
In the first article you can meet Conchita Supervia a singer of the twenties in her perhaps most famous role as Isabella. Her duet with Vincenzo Bettoni “Ai cappricci della sorte” is great cinema, it has a good sound quality despite the recording year 1928. She single-handedly brought this opera back from the 50-year-old Sleeping Beauty’s sleep. Jürgen Kesting comments on this recording in “The great singers of the 20th century”: “When Conchita Supervia as Isabella says to Taddeo that a foolish lover is a torture (“sciocco amante”) and that she would rather have a Turk than a booby (“meglio un turco che un briccone”), one sees the tragicomic scene in front of her with her hands and whole body and the excitement of the tone of voice. She not only performs music, she performs it.”
Ai capricci – Supervia/Bettoni
Ai cappricci della sorte – Dara/Baltsa
Mustafa is full of anticipation
Synopsis: Back at the palace of the Bey. Mustafa promises Lindoro that he may return to Italy if he takes Elvira with him. Lindoro has no choice but accept and Mustafa informs Elvira, that she will soon be shipped to Italy. Haly arrives with the news that a splendid specimen of an Italian woman has been captured . Mustafa almost bursts with anticipation.
The aria of Mustafa is very demanding because of the difficult ornamentation. The role of Mustafa is written for a basso cantante, a bass with height and agility of voice.
Già d’insolito ardore nel petto – Ragazzo
Synopsis: Lindoro, Zulma and Elvira pack their bags. Elvira wants to see Mustafa one last time. Lindoro can’t understand that she is going to miss him because she is young, beautiful and rich, she expects a great future in Italy.
Isabella is presented to Mustafa
Synopsis: The eunuchs appear and praise Mustafa, the scourge of women.
Rossini’s opera is full of stereotypes. The choir of eunuchs is one of them.
Viva il flagel delle donne
Synopsis: Isabella is introduced to the Bey. Mustafa is blown away. Isabella quickly realises that she has a simpleton in front of her whom she can outsmart. Taddeo bursts into the rendez-vous. Angrily Mustafà wants to have the intruder impaled immediately, which Isabella can just about prevent by saying that he is her uncle.
The finale of the first act is a gigantic tangle of intricate plot lines. The libretto creates a confusion that inspired Rossini to one of his grandiose finali. How far away are we from Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio”, whose heart is the humanitarian of the Age of Enlightenment and whose appeal is the understanding of cultures (but which is also full of stereotypes!). Here Rossini is comedian and theatre man. But, and this is the great thing about Rossini, it is great art in the guise of comedy. Rossini is a composer whose music is always above the plot. Schopenhauer spoke about Rossini’s “indifference” to his libretto, his music speaks its own language.
Synopsis: Now also Elvira, Zulma and Lindoro appear to say goodbye to the Bey. When Isabella and Lindoro recognize each other they are perplexed.
This passage is a so-called “Colpo di scena”, a theatrical, surprising turn of the plot, modelled in a scene where time seems to be frozen and everyone is overwhelmed by the surprise. An opportunity for a beautiful and effective ensemble piece.
Confusi e stupidi
Rossini invents the «Rossini crescendo»
Synopsis: To gain time Isabella asks who the three are. When Mustafa explains the situation to her, Isabella quickly devises a ruse. She demands from the stunned Mustafa that Mustafa’s wife Elvira must stay here and that she will keep Lindoro as her personal slave. When Mustafa protests, Isabella tells the perplexed Bey that he knows nothing about love and shall go to hell. Now it is clear to everyone that Isabella has made a donkey out of the lion in no time.
With the nude ending “Nella testa ho un campanello” Rossini describes the boundless confusion of the characters. Everyone is only able to make confused noises like “tac tac”, “din din”, “bum bum” etc. While the singers stammer a dazzling staccato of notes, the orchestra produces a powerful accelerando over several minutes: the legendary Rossini Crescendo was born. This kind of music was completely new and made the audience go wild. With this finale Rossini made his rousing calling card of his music for the first time.
Nella testa ho un campanello – Horne et al.
Isabella and Lindoro are planning an escape attempt
Synopsis: The next day. Isabella is in a disgruntled mood, she had to watch Lindoro on the verge of running off with another woman. When she sees Lindoro, he can clear up the misunderstanding. The two of them decide to make a joint escape attempt with the ship. Now Lindoro has found his courage to face live again.
Rossini composed this expression of Lindoro’s joy in the form of the aria “Oh, come un cor di giubilo”. This great aria by Lindoro requires a very lyrical voice, and again agility and height.
In this aria of Lindoro we hear again Juan Diego Florez. His ornaments are magnificent, interestingly enough he studied the Rossini roles with Marylin Horne for a while.
Oh, come un cor di giubilo – Florez
Taddeo becomes a Kaimakan
Synopsis: Mustafa is in joyful anticipation of the rendezvous with Isabella. But Taddeo crosses his path. Taddeo complains to him about a eunuch who has been following him for some time. Mustafa explains that this is a great honour, and he appoints him as his caimakan.
Kaimakan was a high official title in the Ottoman culture. The ideal condition for Taddeo to overestimate himself, which Rossini put into pleasurable tones.
Ho un gran peso sulla testa – Dara
Isabella’s lesson for Elvira
Synopsis: Meanwhile, Isabella is getting ready for the rendezvous with Mustafa. She has Elvira bring the three coffee mugs and explains to the perplexed Elvira that she is also invited to the rendez-vous. She now shows her how to deal with men.
Isabella teaches Elvira how it works:
Act like a sheep and you will end as food for the wolf.
In Italy it’s the wives who train the husbands
Cecilia Bartolis magnificent Salzburg Isabella
Synopsis: Isabella sits in her room in front of the mirror. Knowing that the Bey is about to enter, she pretends to make herself beautiful for her lover. Mustafa falls for the masquerade.
With seductive sound of the flute Rossini introduces the virtuoso aria of Isabella. It is the opportunity for an actress/singer to show her vocal art of seduction.
In the following video you will experience how Cecilia Bartoli, only covered by foam, is languishing in the bathtub. Simply great!
Per lui che adoro – Bartoli
Mustafa hopes in vain for a romantic hour
Synopsis: Mustafa appears accompanied by Taddeo. He tells Isabella that he has promoted her uncle to a caimakan to show her his appreciation. With the agreed sign of coughing, Mustafa repeatedly tells Taddeo to leave the room. Taddeo pretends not to notice. The next impertinence happens with no delay. Mustafa has to watch as Elvira arrives for tea. Mustafa is furious.
The anger of Mustafa leads to another beautiful ensemble by Rossini.
Andate alla malora … sento un fremito – Montarsolo / Horne / Monk / Merrit / Ahlsted
Synopsis: Haly watched the whole thing and is glad that the pompous Mustafa is getting his deserved lesson from the cunning Italian.
Le femmine d’Italia – Daliotti
The intrigue is started
Synopsis: Taddeo and Lindoro talk to each other, Taddeo reveals that in fact he is not Elisabeth’s uncle but her lover. Then Mustafa appears. Lindoro takes the opportunity to tell the still upset Bey that Isabella is pining for him and that she plans to appoint him as her Pappataci. Now Mustafa is in a good mood again, because he learns that a Pappataci only has to enjoy, eat and drink all day long.
Pappataci is the zoological name of a mosquito and means as much as glutton.
Pappataci che mai sento – Raimondi / Dara / Lopardo
Isabella‘s Hymn „Pensa alla patria“
Synopsis: Isabella plans to create a ceremony for Mustafa in which all Italian slaves honor the Bey with the Italian honorary title “Pappataci”, and then flee to the provided ship by means of a ruse.
Rossini wrote the aria “pensa alla patria” for Isabella, a patriotic appeal to the courage and skill of the Italians to take the risk.
There is an interesting story around the “Pensa alla patria”. After the premiere Rossini had to listen to (unjustified) accusations of plagiarism that he had used music of Mosca’s previous opera. Marcolini, the Isabella of the premiere, now put the alleged original “Pensa alla patria” from Mosca in place of Rossini’s “Pensa alla patria” in one of the performances of the Italiana. The difference in quality was striking and immediately recognized by the audience and Marcolini had to break off the aria after only half of the performance. The plagiarism accusation was off the table.
“Pensa alla patria” became one of the popular anthems of the Risorgimento 30 years later. Rossini didn’t want to make a political statement with the opera at the time of its composition. Although he supported the Greek freedom movement with words in later years, he also wrote a number for the restaurative Napoleon III. In the 1840s he came under pressure from the followers of the Risorgimento with the reproach of doing nothing for the movement. Rossini’s reference to the composition of the “Pensa alla patria” was chalked up by many as an excuse.
Musically, the piece is a skilful showpiece for Isabella, with which the singer can claim the applause of the audience with a cascade of difficult coloraturas. In this aria we hear the most famous and renowned Rossini singer of our days, Cecilia Bartoli. She “discovered” the role of Isabella relatively late (2018 in Salzburg), which is surprising, since Isabella’s temperament is perfectly suited to her.
Pronti abbiamo… Amici in ogni evento… Pensa alla patria – Bartoli
Mustafa is appointed „Pappataci“ and the escape is a success
Synopsis: Mustafa is proud to receive the honour and joins the italians. Isabella receives him and declares to give him the title in a big ceremony. But only under the condition that he fulfils the strict regulations. Mustafa nods and Lindoro reads the rules. He is only allowed to eat and drink during the ceremony. Speaking and acting is forbidden to him. As a sign, she ties chains around his feet. Meanwhile the Italian ship has docked next to the loggia. While Mustafa eats and drinks accompanied by the master of ceremonies Taddeo, the Italians board the ship. When Taddeo is the last to board the ship, Elvira comes into the hall. Now Mustafa realizes that he has been fooled. His corsairs can’t rush to help, because they have been supplied with wine, and are no longer a danger to the Italians. Mustafa has no choice but to accept his fate and asks his wife for forgiveness and for her love.
Finale – Valentini-Terrani / Benelli / Bruscantini / Dara
Recording recommendation of the opera L’ITALIANA IN ALGERI
DG with Agnes Baltsa, Enzo Dara, Ruggero Raimondi and Frank Lopardo under the direction of Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on L’ITALIANA IN ALGERI by Gioacchino Rossini.