Towards the end of the 18th century there was in Europe a flourish of operas set in “Turkish lands”, an expression that encompassed the whole Middle East and North Africa: basically, all the Muslim countries known at the time. L’italiana in Algeri, which premiered in 1813, is firmly set in this tradition, although the 21-year-old Rossini, already confident in his new musical language, did not resort to any orientalism in his score. The plot, however, poses a conundrum to a directorial team: outdated, tone-deaf tradition of big turbans and odalisques, or random setting in a different place/time, with inconsistency between text and visuals? Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier managed to find a sweet spot in the middle ground with this production which premiered in Salzburg four years ago: the action is still set in Algiers, but in current times, and it fits the libretto, ironically exploiting each and every stereotype about Italian and Arabs, for an evening of silliness and fun.

Cecilia Bartoli (Isabella), Ildar Abdrazakov (Mustafà) and chorus
© Monika Rittershaus

So, we see Isabella enter the stage on a flatulent, life-sized dromedary, her suitor Taddeo dressed like the worst Italian tourist, sunburnt and loud. Mustafà is not a ruler, but the head of a street gang of smugglers/thieves, dressed in flashy tracksuits and sparkling sneakers. The gags are silly, the acting is even sillier, but it is exactly what this opera needs.

The cast of singers could have hardly been better. Cecilia Bartoli’s interpretation of Isabella was bubbly, funny, full of charisma. Isabella is a non-traditional woman: she engages the services of a lover to go to Algiers and try to free the man she really loves, enslaved by “the Turks”. She makes fun of the great Mustafà and teases him, leading him on and conceding nothing. Bartoli was perfect in this role: in Rossini she still reigns supreme. Her singing was, as usual, a masterclass: her coloratura detailed and super-fast, her technique superb, her breathing impressive (this woman never breathes!), her legato ravishing.

Ilya Altukhov (Haly), Cecilia Bartoli (Isabella) and Nicola Alaimo (Taddeo)
© Monika Rittershaus

Ildar Abdrazakov’s Mustafà is a man in full middle-age crisis, tired of his wife and lusting after Isabella. His interpretation was bold and shameless, he was merciless in his depiction of this semi-disgusting, pot-bellied, middle-aged man going around in his slippers and underwear, ogling the beautiful Italian signorina. His powerful, smooth bass managed the coloratura with careful attention and plenty of know-how, his voice always elegant and well supported, even when roaring in rage or drooling after Bartoli.

Lindoro, Isabella’s true love enslaved by Mustafà, was Lawrence Brownlee, who confirmed all my previous impressions of him as a great Rossini tenor, with beautiful coloratura and perfect style. Very occasionally the high notes get a little stuck in the nose, but these are minor details. His first aria “Languir per una bella” was a flourish of legato and beautiful phrasing. The directors had him in a Rasta wig, smoking joints as he was vacuuming. Brownlee was priceless in the role.

Nicola Alaimo was Taddeo, the foolish elderly lover who, unaware of having a rival, accompanies Isabella to Algiers. He is a typical buffo-baritone, with a deep, sophisticated understanding of Rossini’s music and style. His performance was a delight of musical intelligence and fun. Rebeca Olvera, as Mustafà’s neglected wife, gave a great performance, both musically and dramatically. Her belly dance in trying to seduce her husband was really funny.

Lawrence Brownlee (Lindoro) and Cecilia Bartoli (Isabella)
© Monika Rittershaus

Gianluca Capuano led La Scintilla, which plays on original instruments. Rossini can be very special on period instruments: in the hands of capable musicians and conductor, it becomes a constant discovery of nuances, new dynamics, different colours and accents. Capuano and La Scintilla were excellent, his reading sparkling, his command of the stage perfect, even in the most breakneck concertati. The recitativi secchi were not accompanied by cembalo, but by fortepiano, played by the excellent Enrico Maria Cacciari, who embellished the accompaniment with occasional oriental accents. The first act finale, with the famous ensemble where everybody goes crazy and just starts making senseless noises (“cra cra, boom boom, din din, tac tac”) was a joy to hear and to behold. Leiser and Caurier had everybody sitting on armchairs which, halfway through the concertato, took off twirling around on the stage like bumper cars, with Olvera leading the ensemble from the top of her range and Capuano firmly in control.

Zurich Opera Chorus
© Monika Rittershaus

The finale of the opera was also very successful, with the Italian slaves dressed like the Italian football team, being refreshed by Isabella who feeds them spaghetti. Isabella’s last aria “Pensa alla patria” was hilarious, with Bartoli interpreting the ornamentations as giggles and little screams of delight as she was frolicking with Brownlee.

The evening was a tremendous success, with cheers for everybody, while the cast picked up the refrain of the last chorus again at curtain call, and the whole audience clapped at tempo. Rossini would have enjoyed that.