Rescue Reversed: Rossini's 'L'Italiana in Algeri' The plot is wacky and not at all politically correct, but Rossini's cross-cultural opera shattered another stereotype: that of the damsel in distress.
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Hear An Introduction To 'L'Italiana In Algeri'

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Rescue Reversed: Rossini's 'L'Italiana in Algeri'

Rescue Reversed: Rossini's 'L'Italiana in Algeri'

From The Lausanne Opera

Hear An Introduction To 'L'Italiana In Algeri'

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The triumph of Italy: Rossini's 'L'Italiana In Algeri' at the Opéra de Lausanne Marc Vanappelghem/Opéra de Lausanne hide caption

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Marc Vanappelghem/Opéra de Lausanne

The triumph of Italy: Rossini's 'L'Italiana In Algeri' at the Opéra de Lausanne

Marc Vanappelghem/Opéra de Lausanne

Both Gioachino Rossini and Ludwig van Beethoven were dominant composers during the early 1800s. Aside from that shared chronology, they have very little in common, especially when it comes to opera.

Sometime before 1809, when he was still a teenager, Rossini began composing his very first opera, beginning a career that produced everything from deadly serious tragedies to historical epics to frothy comedies. By the time he was done, Rossini had written nearly 40 operas, and was famous in theaters all over Europe.

In 1804, while in his mid-thirties, Beethoven got started on his own first opera. That launched an operatic career which concluded about 10 years later — when he finally finished that same score. It was the only opera he ever composed.

The Hit Single

Isabella (mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus) introduces herself early in the first act with the aria "Cruda Sorte! Amor tiranno!" But while she first sings of "cruel fate" and "tyrannical love," she soon concludes that all men are basically the same, and she knows exactly how to handle them.

'Cruel Fate!'

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Still, these two very different composers do share one common thread. They both took a dramatic formula that was extremely popular among opera lovers early in the 19th century — something called the "rescue opera" — and turned it upside down. Beethoven did it in his only opera, Fidelio, and Rossini followed suit in the opera featured here, his 1813 comedy L'italiana in Algeri.

The B Side

As he sings the Act One aria "Languir per una bella" — "To languish for a beauty" — Lindoro (Lawrence Brownlee) is locked away by Mustafa, unable to see Isabella, and considers his sorry condition.

'To Languish For A Beauty'

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A typical rescue opera involves a beautiful young woman who is kidnapped or captured and then faces torture and death — that is, until her heroic lover shows up and saves the day. But in both Fidelio and L'italiana, the tables are turned: in both operas it's a man who is in desperate trouble, and it takes a resourceful woman to get him out of it.

L'italiana in Algeri is usually translated as The Italian Girl in Algiers. But if Isabella, Rossini's title character, were transported to the present day, nobody would dare call her a "girl." She's one of the wisest and most formidable women you'll find in any opera, and by the time her story ends, no one — including her captive lover Lindoro — is willing to stand in her way.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production of L'italiana in Algeri from the Lausanne Opera in Switzerland. Mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus is Isabella, with tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Lindoro, the young man she rescues from desperate straits.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'L'Italiana In Algeri'

Rossini's opera is in two acts and takes place at a seaside palace in Algiers. As ACT ONE begins, the lady of the house, Elvira, is complaining to her servants that her husband Mustafà, the local ruler, no longer loves her. The servants aren't much comfort; they tell her there's not much she can do about it. When Mustafa enters in a huff, and promptly sends Elvira away, it seems the servants are right.

Mustafà says he's tired of his wife and decides to give her to Lindoro, a young Italian man recently kidnapped on the high seas by Mustafá's pirates. As for Mustafà himself, he wants a woman from Italy, and orders his captain Haly to find him one.

Lindoro, meanwhile, is miserable. He's in love with an Italian woman, Isabella, but she was lost when the pirates captured him. Mustafà tells Lindoro to perk up. He can have Elvira instead.

Who's Who

Anna Bonitatibus ............ Isabella
Lawrence Brownlee ......... Lindoro
Luciana Di Pasquale ...... Mustafà
Riccardo Novale ............... Taddeo
Alexandre Diakoff ............... Haly
Elizabeth Bailey .................. Elvira
Antoinette Dennefeld ...... Zulma

Lausanne Chamber Orchestra
Lausanne Opera Chorus

Ottavio Dantone, conductor

In the next scene, there's a shipwreck, and the survivors who come ashore include Isabella. She's quickly taken prisoner by Mustafà's men, and laments the cruelty of fate; the wreck has interrupted her search for Lindoro, her lost fiancé. Still, despite her perilous situation, she's not worried. She's confident in her own cleverness — and in her powers over men. When it comes down to it, Isabella says, all men are basically the same, and she intends to prove it.

The pirates have also seized Taddeo, an aging admirer of Isabella, and decide to sell him into slavery. But he claims he's Isabella's uncle and can't leave her. When the locals learn that both captives are Italian, they're pleased: surely Isabella will be a perfect addition to Mustafà's harem. Taddeo is aghast at how calmly Isabella takes this news, and the two quarrel about his jealousy. Still, they decide they'd better work together.

In the meantime, Mustafà has ordered Lindoro and Elvira to marry — and the servant Zulma tries to tell the couple they should just make the best of it. Mustafà promises Lindoro that he'll be allowed to return home — provided that he takes Elvira with him. Seeing no other choice, Lindoro accepts. Then, when Haly announces the capture of an Italian woman, Mustafà gloats, and goes off to meet her.

In the main hall of the palace, Mustafà welcomes Isabella, while he's hailed by his eunuchs as "the scourge of women." As an aside, Isabella remarks that Mustafà looks ridiculous, and she'll have no trouble dealing with him. In fact, he already seems under her spell.

At first, she seems to throw herself on Mustafà's mercy. And when the jealous Taddeo starts to make a scene, Isabella saves him from Musatafà's anger by saying that Taddeo really is her "uncle."

Elvira and Lindoro then turn up, ready to leave for Italy. But as they're saying good-bye to Mustafà, Lindoro and Isabella recognize each other and exchange secret glances. Isabella takes advantage of Mustafà's clear attraction to her and in a riotous ensemble finale, she persuades him to let Elvira stay. She demands that Lindoro stay on as well, as her own personal servant, leaving Mustafà frustrated and confused.

ACT TWO opens as Elvira and her courtiers are talking about how easily this Italian girl has dominated Mustafà. The poor man has fallen for her, head over heels, and to keep her happy, Mustafà gives her aging companion Taddeo the honorary title of "Kaimakan," and dresses him in a Turkish uniform.

In the next scene, Isabella puts on Turkish clothing herself and prepares to entertain Mustafà, who is expecting a private meeting. Isabella tells Elvira that the only way she's going to hold onto her husband is by being more assertive. Just watch, she says, and follow my lead. To keep Mustafà eager, Isabella keeps him waiting. Then, she finally admits him to her rooms, she invites Elvira to stay for coffee. Finally, when Isabella insists that Mustafà treat his wife better, he erupts in anger. Isabella still seems unconcerned.

As Lindoro and Taddeo plan their escape, Taddeo claims that he is the man Isabella truly loves. Lindoro finds this amusing, but realizes he still needs Taddeo's help, so he pretends to believe it.

Mustafà soon enters, still furious. Lindoro says Isabella actually cares very much for Mustafà and wants to prove it with a ceremony, giving him the honorable Italian position of "Pappataci." Believing this nonsense, Mustafà asks what he has to do. It's simple, says Lindoro. To prove yourself as a Papatacci, you must eat, drink and sleep all you like, while staying oblivious to everything that happens around you.

In her apartment, Isabella gets ready for Mustafà's indoctrination. Mustafà arrives, and Lindoro reminds him of the ceremonial procedure. After he's pronounced a Pappataci, he's tested by Isabella and Lindoro. As they pretend to make love, Taddeo reminds Mustafà to ignore them, while eating and drinking to his heart's content — it's all part of his initiation.

As Mustafà fulfills these "duties," a ship draws up in the background. The lovers prepare to embark, along with some other Italian captives. But Taddeo realizes that he's also being tricked — that Isabella really doesn't love him, and intends to be with Lindoro. He tries to rally Mustafà, who persists in keeping his vow, and pays no attention. When Mustafà finally realizes what's going on, the Italians have the situation under control and bid him farewell.

Mustafà has learned his lesson and takes Elvira back, while everyone concludes that the Italian woman was bound get her own way.