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Florentine's Opera With a Flourish

Rossini's madcap 'L'Italiana in Algeri' bursts into Milwaukee

Mar. 16, 2011
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Beethoven said that Rossini would have been a great composer if his music teacher had turned him over his knee and spanked him. Then again, Beethoven's taciturn temperament is so far removed from Rossini's madcap gaiety that his comment seems an unwitting compliment to the composer's unbridled talent. Rossini's most popular operas are a cornucopia of zany hilarity and splashy arias usually resolving into relentlessly embellished duets, trios and quartets that race like the Marx brothers on steroids.

Audiences have been delighted for nearly two centuries. Exemplifying the Rossini idiom is L'Italiana in Algeri, written in 1813 by the 21-year-old composer—a work Stendhal called "organized in complete madness," yet with music "that makes one forget all the sadness in the world."

The humor of the story alone evokes sufficient merriment to surmount any politically correct charges of racism or white slavery. Mustafa, bey of Algiers, is tired of his wife, Elvira, and much prefers the lovely Italian captive Isabella—a problem Mustafa hopes to solve by trying to get his favorite male slave Lindoro to take Elvira off his hands. It happens that Lindoro is also in love with Isabella. Even comic opera is bound by the moral traditions of its time, and so it requires that the resourceful Isabella eventually induce the hapless Mustafa to see the errors of his ways and reinstate his loyal wife.

Exploiting the 19th-century taste for Oriental exoticism, Rossini conjures a fanciful Ottoman world devoid of historical reality. Some musical scholars seem bothered by the alleged superficiality of the early Rossini scores, with one stating that the music "does not allow us to build a complex psychological or social picture," but opera buffa such as L'Italiana allows the obvious typecasting to grant the music greater freedom to develop a fanciful world without being tied to the realism of the libretto. By suspending reality, it creates a more liberated stage illusion. The result is a fanciful tongue-in-cheek romp allowing the audience to enjoy the music of a gifted composer without being bothered to figure it all out. The uncomplicated story makes it all the easier to enjoy the challenging vocal gymnastics unhampered by common sense. Later operas like Barber ofSeville and Semiramide might flesh out characters in greater detail, but few have the direct, effortless exuberance of L'Italiana.

Florentine Opera General Director Bill Florescu, known for his bold efforts to bring new and unusual operas to Milwaukee operagoers, has little patience with Rossini naysayers. Rightfully, he insists that the appeal and accessibility of the Rossini canon has never ceased to delight audiences, and few works in the opera buffa genre can match them for sheer musical delight and an irrepressible determination to entertain. Florescu says that Rossini's musical ornamentation "helps to flesh out the characters and always reflects the dramatic action." It rivets audiences directly with "its glittering score."

Florescu says an opera company cannot afford to constantly recycle the most familiar repertory; younger audiences as well as longtime subscribers look forward to hearing new works and less well-known classics. The Florentine has recently presented new and daring productions, including the beautifully scored Elmer Gantry and the world premiere of Rio de Sangre. This production of L'Italiana in Algeri is only the Florentine's second presentation of the work in its 77-year history.

The charming scenario with swashbuckling pirates, exotic locales and opera's most memorable spaghetti fight can't miss. L'Italiana will be directed by Skylight Opera Theatre's renowned artistic director, William Theisen, and conducted by longtime opera veteran Joseph Rescigno. The cast will include internationally acclaimed singers. The lead role of Isabella will be sung by mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (March 18 and 20), praised for her "voice of supple warmth" by the San Francisco Chronicle. Alternating with her is Italian mezzo-soprano Alessandra Volpe (March 19).

L'Italiana in Algeri
will be performed March 18-20at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Steve Spice is a retired educator interested in cultural sociology, particularly the historical background of Western music and the early development of motion pictures.


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