On April 10, 1813, Giovanni Gallo, impresario of Venice’s Teatro San Benedetto, announced his soon-to-open spring season, consisting of La donna selvaggio — a new work by Carlo Coccia — and Rossini’s La pietra del paragone. Rossini was a hot ticket in Venice, thanks to the triumph of Tancredi, his first great opera seria, two months earlier.
Within two weeks, the season had completely imploded. La pietra del paragone flopped in Venice, despite its rapturous premiere at La Scala the previous September. To make matters worse, Coccia failed to deliver his new opera.
Only Rossini, known as a speedy worker, could come to the rescue (cue last part of the William Tell Overture). Within days he was fast-tracking a new comedy for the anguished impresario on a four-week schedule. Its opening night would be May 22nd.
“Nothing primes inspiration more than an impresario tearing out his hair,” Rossini later recounted to a friend. “In my day, all Italian impresarios were bald by age 30.”
No time for a new text; Rossini adapted one used at La Scala in 1808: L’Italiana in Algeri. Plenty of time for the composer to write a terrific score, with the help of an unknown assistant who wrote the recitatives and one or two of the lesser arias. Rossini was a notorious musical recycler, but there is virtually no self- borrowing from earlier operas in The Italian Girl in Algiers, despite the time pressure.
The composer wove together the following strands in creating his first comic masterpiece:
A bold and brainy Italian woman as the central character Isabella
A spine-tingling rescue plot — always good box office
Gender inversion, with a female rescuer and male rescuee
A patriotic appeal to national pride
Savvy story revisions, which increased Isabella’s prominence and the opportunities for zany comedy
A fashionably exotic setting in Algiers, then a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire
A passion for all things “Turkish” swept Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Snake charmers, bloodthirsty warlords, voluptuous concubines, lascivious sultans, sybaritic harems, and more all came to the fore in music, art, and literature. Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (source story for this season’s Ariadne auf Naxos) ends with an ersatz Turkish induction ceremony. Byron sealed his rise to fame with four “Turkish Tales.” Painters such as Ingres and Delacroix reveled in exotic imagery. Turkish-themed weddings became popular, and countless European households were graced by Turkish rugs, furniture, porcelain, and knickknacks.
Composers became fascinated by “Janissary music,” a rough approximation of the Ottoman Empire’s martial music that used piccolos, bells, triangles, cymbals, and bass drums. These instruments were so foreign to western orchestras that Mozart had to recruit players from the Austrian Second Field Artillery Regimental Band for his Abduction from the Seraglio, which featured another rescue-from-the-harem plot. In addition, many composers, including Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and Gluck, wrote music to be performed “Alla Turca” (“In the Turkish Style”), suggesting the Orient without the use of percussion and piccolo.
By 1800, you could buy a fortepiano with a special “Janissary Stop,” which would bring the sound of drums, triangles, and bells right into your own home. Ironically, Sultan Mahmud II abolished the Ottoman Empire’s Janissary bands in 1826, replacing them with a European-style troupe led by Giuseppe Donizetti, the famous opera composer’s elder brother. And while the threat of Ottoman invasion had vanished for Europe by the early 1800s, being captured on the Mediterranean was still a genuine danger. Piracy had kept Algiers financially afloat for centuries.
The opera has five major characters. Isabella is traveling in search of her beloved, Lindoro. She is accompanied by Taddeo, who is both a middle-aged suitor and something of a 19th- century wingman; a woman traveling solo at the time was morally suspect, at best. Mustafà, the Bey of Algiers, wishes to be rid of his current wife Elvira. In a bit of “Occidentalism,” he now longs for one of those exotic Italian women he’s heard so much about. Lindoro is now Mustafà’s chief slave, having been captured three months earlier by his pirates. In the best tradition of comic coincidence, these same pirates scoop up Isabella and Taddeo, who have conveniently landed on Algerian shores.
Isabella is a heroic opera character dropped into a comic opera plot. In “Cruda sorte,” her first aria, Isabella briefly laments her “cruel fate,” then rallies herself to action. “Now is the time for courage… I know how to tame men; they’re all alike anyway.” Near the opera’s conclusion, she inspires the Italian slaves with “Pensa alla patria,” invoking the love of their homeland as they launch their escape attempt. This stirring aria was one of Rossini’s additions which made Isabella’s role more prominent. It also became an unofficial anthem for Italian unification, and its revolutionary fervor caused it to be banned by the censors in some productions
Taddeo’s presence turns the classic love triangle into a quadrangle, giving the plot unique comic dynamics. Isabella’s virtuosity is challenged as she juggles three lovers, a task brilliantly depicted in a scene during which she changes into Turkish attire. She notices in her mirror that all three are watching surreptitiously, so she sings of an unnamed suitor. Men being as they are, each assumes he is the subject of her song and the object of her love.
Taddeo also functions as Mustafà’s western alter ego — the timid Italian and the vainglorious Algerian are more alike than they are different, sending the message that human nature is the same the world over. With his bluster and bravado, Mustafà comes across as an insecure blowhard trying to convince himself of his legitimacy as a ruler and as a lover.
The first act ends with 17 minutes of nonstop music and action, à la Mozart, the composer whom Rossini considered “the admiration of my youth, the desperation of my maturity, and the consolation of my old age.” The act finale includes a “Rossini Crescendo,” a technique first heard in La pietra del paragone, the opera that had flopped in Venice just two months earlier. The term does not simply mean everyone singing or playing more loudly, but describes a sophisticated manipulation of melody, rhythm, dynamics, harmony, and orchestration, creating the feeling of intensifying power, speed, and exhilaration.
The last section of the finale was one of Rossini’s libretto additions, and it combines his trademark crescendo with a burst of onomatopoeia. The principals all sing “My brain is turning topsy-turvy, I’m like a ship about to sink between the waves and the rocks,” to a nautically rolling melody.
Then comes the pièce de résistance, as the following phrases pile up on one another.
WOMEN: There’s a bell that’s ringing in my head, going DING DING DING.
LINDORO: A giant hammer is beating in my head, going BANG BANG BANG.
TADDEO: I’m like a crow that’s been plucked, going CAW CAW CAW.
MUSTAFÀ: Like cannon fire, my head’s going BOOM BOOM BOOM.
In the second act, Rossini brilliantly exploits the parallels between Mustafà and Taddeo with a pair of ceremonial honors, continuing the opera’s surreal zaniness to the very end. Desperate to get into Isabella’s good graces, Mustafà elevates Taddeo to “Grand Kaimakan,” as the chorus of eunuchs proclaims, “May bounteous heaven grant you the strength of the lion, the guile of the serpent, a frank, open countenance, and excellent teeth!” Despite this comic touch, the ceremony is performed with “great respect and deference,” befitting the genuine title, that of a governor in the Ottoman Empire.
Later on, Taddeo, Lindoro, and Isabella anoint Mustafà as a “Pappataci.” A pappataci is a type of blood-sucking sandfly, so this reciprocal honor is somewhat less glorious than that of “Kaimakan.” The music is a tip-off here, full of orchestral pomposity, enormous vocal leaps, and comic text repetition on one note, as is the job description: “To eat, drink, sleep, make love, and remain silent, doing nothing, above all.”
Mustafà dutifully follows this prescription to the letter, remaining mute while Isabella and Lindoro romance each other in plain sight, then join the Italian slaves in commandeering a ship and sailing back to their homeland. The Bey realizes he’s been hoodwinked, but it’s too late. He sheepishly apologizes to Elvira, the Algerians wish the Italians a safe journey, and everyone joins together in saluting Isabella:
The beautiful Italian girl who came to Algiers
Has taught jealous and haughty lovers
That a woman can make a fool of anyone she wishes.
Mar Tiarks was The Santa Fe Opera’s Director of Planning and Marketing for 11 years. He has also served as the General Director of Chicago Opera Theater, the Producing Director of Chicago’s Court Theatre, and the Artistic Administrator for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.