An Introduction to the Opera
by Dr. Robert Blackburn
The Italian Girl in Algiers (L'Italiana in Algeri), first performed at the Teatro San Benedetto in Venice on 22 May 1813, was the eleventh stage work of Gioachino Rossini, the new star of Italian opera, still only 21 years old at the time. It stands between the 'heroic melodrama' Tancredi, given at the La Fenice Theatre, Venice, earlier in the same year, and a 'dramma serio', Aureliano in Palmira, first seen at La Scala, Milan in December. Three new operas in one year (each with the standard two acts) was not unusual for the prolific and gifted young composer. Rossini's The Barber of Seville came three years later in his career, in 1816, and La Cenerentola (Cinderella) a year after that. Both of these celebrated works were given in Rome, and both became part of the mainstream Italian operatic repertoire.
The early career of Rossini is a model of astonishing precocious achievement set against the troubled background of the Napoleonic wars in Italy and Europe generally. His eventual withdrawal from operatic composition in 1829, at the age of 37, with William Tell, led to a period of forty years of relative indolence and self-indulgence which has tended to dominate his historical image. Unfairly, he has always been associated largely with comic or buffo opera, rather than his serious ones, and his links with the eighteenth century (he was born in 1792, the year after Mozart's death) have been stressed at the expense of his position as a part of the great changes of style, technique, subject-matter and dramatic convention during the Romantic era. In his lifetime, he was regarded universally as the greatest Italian composer of the day.
Both of Rossini's parents were musicians; his mother Anna was a singer, his father Giuseppe a horn player and an enthusiast for political liberalism, briefly imprisoned in 1800. After his years in Pesaro, on the Adriatic coast south of Ravenna, the family left Rossini's birthplace for Lugo (between Ravenna and Bologna) where the young Rossini's gifts as a singer rapidly emerged. He took horn lessons from Giuseppe, composed music and became a maestro al cembalo (keyboard accompanist) by the time he was 16. The prolific composer's roots in practical musicianship are very evident. When, from 1806, he studied at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, Rossini found in the music of Haydn and Mozart a new world. Decades later, he said that Mozart's music was 'the admiration of my youth, the desperation of my mature years, the consolation of my old age.'
Rossini's 'dramma giocoso' (Mozart and Da Ponte had used this familiar term for the much darker Don Giovanni in 1787) was produced quickly and in a crisis for the impresario Cesare Gallo, director of the Teatro San Benedetto. An opera by another composer, Carlo Coccia, had not been delivered on time. Oddly, another of Rossini's comic works, La pietra del paragone had not gone down well in Venice. Yet, after the immense popularity of Tancredi, there was a real appetite amongst the Venetian public for Rossini's brilliant and entertaining music. Gallo realised this, was Rossini as the man of the hour, and called on him for help. The opera was completed in only twenty-seven days, amazing even for Rossini.
With the genuine love of Isabella for Lindoro as the central thread, the comedy surrounds her rival suitor, the grumbling Taddeo, and the larger than life, grotesque philanderer Mustafa, with his formidable wife Elvira. Several times in this opera the opera seria manner appears, almost in parody, to balance the general comic style. Rossini includes a reference to the Marseillaise before Isabella's aria 'Pensa alla patria', as though to stress the general confusion of Europe in 1813. And in the chorus of the Act 1 finale, there is a reference to 'Non piu andrai' from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, wittily emphasising the dramatic parallel in the two works.
The Italian Girl's libretto had been written in 1808 by Angelo Anelli, and had already been set to music by Luigi Mosca, and given at La Scala, Milan in that year. It is a comment on rapid turnover, or short shelf life, of most operas during this period that the text was seen as a suitable vehicle for Rossini's comedic musical style five years later, no one knows for certain who revised Anelli's libretto, but the best claim is Gaetano Rossi, librettist of Tancredi. The result was Rossini's first fully-fledged comic masterpiece, described by the great French novelist Stendhal, in his Life of Rossini as 'perfection in the opera buffa style'.