The Italian Girl in Algiers
Approximate Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with 1 intermission
In Italian with English captions
Casting a Rossini Romp: L’italiana in Algeri
By Speight Jenkins
In the summer of 2002, Seattle Opera did not present an opera. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we were
not sure how anything in the Mercer Arena would sell in the next summer, so we cancelled our planned work.
For the first time and I hope the only time I was free to go to the other American summer music festivals including
Glimmerglass in upstate New York and the Santa Fe Opera. At Santa Fe , my wife and I attended several excellent
productions, including one of the best Clemenza di Titos I can remember. The one performance that absolutely
captivated us, however, was L’italiana in Algeri, with Stephanie Blythe and William Burden. Both artists
stand high among those I like to present at Seattle Opera; the Rossini romp has never been given here by our company,
and both artists love singing it. Actually, it was the second time that I had seen Stephanie sing Isabella. She had
had a great success with the part in Philadelphia in another excellent production.
Executives from the San Francisco Opera attended the production and had the same idea. It proved feasible
to adapt the production given in Santa Fe’s unique theater for both of our similar indoor stages.
We both decided that the right director for this production would be Chris Alexander, whose comic work has
been successfully seen in Seattle most recently in Die Fledermaus and before that in Ariadne auf Naxos.
Chris was delighted to get to do the work in two theaters, and it served as the opening night last season in the Bay City.
The combination of Stephanie Blythe and Bill Burden was not one to break up. They love working together,
and their voices are very complementary. At the same time I wanted to bring Lawrence Brownlee back to Seattle
in this opera, as Lindoro is one of the parts on which he is building his important career. Larry agreed to
come for the other cast, and as Isabella I asked a great artist who has not sung enough in the United States,
Helene Schneiderman. She has sung principally in Germany, but her Nicklausse in our 2005 Tales of Hoffmann
gave our audiences a taste of what she can do. One of the most versatile mezzo-sopranos I know, she has sung everything
from Isabella in this opera and Cornelia in L’incornonazione di Poppea to Suzuki in Madama Butterfly
and Carmen. This gives us two sets of mezzos and tenors on a very high level; I would think that any opera lover
wouldn’t think of missing either.
The other role of vital importance is that of Mustafà, the Algerian chieftain who is thwarted by
Isabella’s cleverness. It’s in some ways the hardest role in the piece. The character must handle
Rossini’s buffo writing, suggest a threat, be funny, and pull off with the help of the director one of
the most difficult scenes in opera. Others may not agree, but the “Pappataci” scene to me has often
confounded many classic comedians. To escape, Isabella conceives the notion that Mustafà will be inducted
into the order of Pappataci or “Stuff yourself and eat.” A person in this society continues eating
or doing what he is doing no matter what is going on around him. The world may be coming apart, but the Pappataci
member continues his chosen task.
Rossini must have thought this to be very funny. In my experience it rarely is as it falls so far beyond our
normal ability to suspend disbelief, and comedy is built on our seeing situations that we can imagine happening.
I looked everywhere therefore for two buffos who could do the trick. The Sunday-Friday Mustafà was easier;
Kevin Burdette, a young American of many talents who is combining a very active singing career with attending
Columbia Law School (I don’t know how), has a great ability to do outrageous actions seriously and make
people laugh. For the Saturday-Wednesday Mustafà, I was at first stumped until in Italy I had the chance to
see Simone Alberghini work. He can do what must be done to bring Mustafà alive and make him believable.
There was another happy addition. When Sally Wolf was in Seattle singing her beautiful and meaningful Norma
in the spring of 2003, she told me that she was interested in more bel canto. She said in response my question that
she was free in September and October of 2006. I asked her to sing Mustafà’s discarded wife, Elvira,
and she happily agreed, thereby bringing a high quality of artistry into a part not usually so well served.
Because the bel canto orchestra is small and basically accompanies the singers, the public generally has the
huge misconception that the conductor is not important. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly for
Rossini’s operas. Rossini and his contemporaries Bellini and Donizetti often did not indicate what they wanted
on the score—dynamics, accents, rubati—all the musical touches that make a work live or die.
They expected their musicians, who all knew the style so well, to know what to do. This kind of knowledge, though
sometimes still present today, has been diluted by the huge variety of music that has come into the repertory since
the early 1800s. A conductor of this music therefore must work very hard with the cast in rehearsal as well as with
the orchestra, allowing them their freedom but putting a very personal control on the overall interpretation. I know
of no conductor better equipped for this task than Edoardo Müller, the dean of Italian bel canto experts.
Müller has often led operas at Seattle Opera, the most recent being our 2004 Rigoletto. This will be his
first Italiana with us.
The cast, conductor, and production were set about two years ago; now we are ready to launch into one of Rossini’s
wackiest comedies, one that should cause everyone to have a wonderful time in the opera house.