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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.