Interest in Rossini is famously tied to Maria Callas and the renaissance, both technical and stylistic, of the Belcanto tradition which in the wake of the Divina has inspired as diverse a roster as Teresa Berganza, Marilyn Horne, and Montserrat Caballe to name but a few.
Yet in addition to her live performances, her recorded legacy has marked our ear for Rossini. Arguably, Callas’ “Il turco in Italia” (1954) and “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” (1957) are among the best on record, seamless in their blend of vocal bravura and comedic intuition.
In Glossa’s recent “L’italiana in Algeri” (which, surprisingly, did not feature in Callas’ repertoire) those same lessons are emulated by the Russian Vasilisa Berzhanskaya who, in the title-role, leads a cast of talented and hitherto under-recorded singers.
Collectively, they make for a witful and wonderfully balanced take on “L’italiana,” eclectic in the very best sense and, as such, deserving of every attention.
Rossini in Algiers
The opera, composed in 1813, needs a small introduction. Set in Algiers, it revolves around the desire of Mustafà (bass) to substitute his current harem, most notably his wife Elvira (soprano), for the Italian Isabella (contralto). Shipwrecked, the latter is in search of her beloved Lindoro (tenor), himself enslaved at the court of the Bey of Algiers.
The two reunite, yet it takes a daring ruse for them to escape the unsettled Mustafà on whom they bestow the false honor of pappataci (meaning, literally, “silent eater”). Isabella and Lindoro board a ship to Italy and the humiliated Bey, in the end, returns to Elvira with the remorseful promise of “non più italiane” – “no more Italian women for me!”
As is customary for Rossini and, in this case, his librettist Angelo Anelli, the comic effect derives from the musical transcription of situations that are built on dissimulation and quiproquos. It follows that “L’italiana in Algeri,” like “Il turco in Italia” (1814) and “Il barbiere di Siviglia” (1816), requires a strong theatrical presence and textual awareness from its interpreters.
Musically, moreover, all of Rossini’s hallmarks are present, incl. sheer endless semiquaver runs and a wildly onomatopoeic finale to Act one (“dindin,” bumbum,” “crà crà,” “tac tà”), clad in an atmosphere of faux Orientalism.
The live Aura from Amsterdam
The Glossa release is a live recording from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 2022. It is finely engineered, even though the sound quality does not appear to be the same across different platforms, much to the detriment of the ensemble scenes and, therein, the voices individually! For the old-fashioned I therefore recommend the CD version with, as a bonus, the booklet essay by Kasper van Kooten.
Yet even in suboptimal conditions, the live aura is by no means hampered. It is carried, instead, by conductor Giancarlo Andretta’s swift but firm hand which effectively bundles all the excitement of the moment.
Andretta has at his disposal a set of singers which, vocally, are not as closely matched as Gary Bertini’s (1978) or Claudio Scimone’s (1980) for whom their labels cast monstres sacrés the likes of Valentini-Terrani, Bruscantini, and Dara as well as Ramey, Horne, and Kathleen Battle respectively.
Yet for the current CD this does not matter, as both the vocal and acting personalities of everyone involved more than aptly hold their ground.
In the Chilean Ricardo Seguel, for instance, we have a buffo bass with a long track record of Rossini and Donizetti roles, incl. Dulcamara, Basilio from “Il barbiere,” and Prince Selim. The voice itself has a lovely grain and effortlessly flows through all the registers up to the F4 in “Già insolito d’ardore.”
The coloraturas of Seguel are equally well executed, not as nimble as Sam Ramey’s but with a timbral charisma strongly reminiscent of Fernando Corena. With the latter he moreover shares an entirely benign tendency towards overacting, vocally that is. His Mustafà therefore conveys the three-dimensionality of a live character, witful and hilarious, yet weary of the pitfalls of the ridicule.
A delightful contribution also comes from Alasdair Kent whose technical finesse and keen ear for variation place this Lindoro at the forefront of the tenore di grazia fach in the 21st century.
The voice has both the softness and the substance to melt the tone of long-sustained lines into quasi evanescent finishes. In the cavatina of “Languir per una bella,” for instance, the rubati together with the filature on “tormento” and “possa” are nothing short of superb.
José Coca Loza fits in as a sympathetic Haly, Mustafà’s captain of the guard. Based in Zurich, the Bolivian bass commands an imposing instrument of honeyed depths, uniform in its breadth, and guided by a fine sense of style.
The roles of Elvira and Zulma, her confidante, are filled by Lilian Farahani and Esther Kuiper. Farahani is a most intelligent artist, sensitive to every nuance in both the score and the libretto. They are supported by Pablo Ruiz as the unfortunate Taddeo who, in the recitatives especially, captures the essence of his tragicomic character.
Berzhanskaya’s Furore Unleashed
Finally, there is Vasilisa Berzhanskaya whose notoriously vast range allows the mezzo to tackle the contralto part of Isabella.
In her Act two cavatina of “Per lui che adoro” the lavishness of her tone makes a case for her natural talent as a vocalist. Gifted with one of the most inherently exciting voices of her generation, however, it is the instinctive, yet at the same time cerebral approach to her part which, in the vein of the Divina, defines the Russian Berzhanskaya as eclectic.
It is indeed hard not to hear the echo of Callas’ Rosina in the furore of her coloraturas, here and in the famous “Pensa alla patria.”
With her seductively shaded tone she delivers a chiaroscuro portrayal which, as far as I can tell, very much stands by itself among the discographical output of the post-war years. One would have to resort to the shellac records of Conchita Supervia to hear an Isabella of similarly dark-hued temper.
The cast is supported by the La Cetra Vokalensemble Basel.
The Orchestra of the Enlightenment is playing fast under Andretta’s direction, with crisp sounds due to its not unchallenged use of period instruments. For Rossini the latter may, to some extent, contravene the composer’s strife for musical, that is orchestral innovation at a time when the instrumental transition to 19th century advances was in the air.
Within the context of Glossa’s “L’italiana,” however, this discussion is largely theoretical and should not distract from its many merits. It is indeed an entertaining, sometimes even brilliant take on Rossini’s early comedy which I strongly believe should introduce both labels and opera goers to a new generation of consummate young singers.