In `Italian Girl,' even gibberish gets a laugh

Opera Vivente presents Rossini's comic opera

Stage: Theater/Music/Dance

October 21, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Give me a laundry list," Gioachino Rossini supposedly said, "and I will set it to music."

You can be sure he would have a lot of fun with such an assignment. After all, a composer who could get amazing musical and comical mileage out of such words as "cra cra" and "tac tac" would hardly be fazed by "easy on the starch" or "extra bleach."

Rossini fans never tire of hearing the clever way he used "cra cra" and "tac tac" - or, for that matter, "ding ding" and "boom boom" - in the Act 1 finale of his first full-scale comic masterpiece, L'italiana in Algeri. It's one of the most brilliant examples of onomatopoeia you'll find in all of music.

Opera Vivente opens its season this weekend with a production of the work, which will be performed in English as An Italian Girl in Algiers.

In late April 1813, Rossini was in Venice, trying to help out an opera house impresario who needed a new opera and needed it fast. Unexpectedly, a recent Rossini opera (La pietra del paragone) that had been a hit in Milan bombed at its Venetian premiere. And a composer who was supposed to provide the theater with a new piece had fallen behind schedule. The public was getting restless.

Rossini agreed to help out by writing something fresh, and, to save time, decided to borrow a libretto that had been used five years earlier by another composer. In only 27 days, Rossini completed the assignment and scored a triumph.

The Italian Girl was soon welcomed heartily in theaters all over Europe. To this day, it stands firmly alongside Rossini's other great comedies, The Barber of Seville and Cenerentola, representing his powers of imagination at their peak.

The story is "really zany," says Opera Vivente's artistic director John Bowen, who is directing this production. "It's over-the-top farce and, I think, much funnier than Barber."

The setting is Algiers, circa 1805. The ruler, Mustafa, is bored with his wife and obsessed with the idea of getting an Italian replacement. Enter an Italian woman, Isabella, who is searching for her long-lost boyfriend, Lindoro, currently one of Mustafa's slaves.

Complications ensue, needless to say, all to an infectiously tuneful score. In that Act 1 finale, the characters are so stunned by turn of events that they are left in a stupor, their heads swimming with odd sounds - crowing (the "cra cra"), hammering ("tac tac"), bell-ringing and cannon fire.

In the next act, the craziness continues, including an imaginary society called the "Pappataci" that Mustafa is unwittingly duped into joining. By the time all the loose ends are tied up, the Italians escape and Mustafa is back with his wife and, at least theoretically, the wiser.

Rossini's treatment of the voices in the Italian Girl delectably delineates the characters. Isabella, a contralto role, is a commanding figure right from her spectacular entrance aria, Cruda sorte. The charming music for Lindoro (tenor) easily reveals the reasons for Isabella's devotion, while the pomposity and absurdity of Mustafa (bass) are deftly drawn by his notes.

"The opera deals with a clash of cultures," says Bowen, who will take a much more serious look at the same subject in Opera Vivente's spring production, Handel's Tamburlaine. "Both works are about irreconcilable world views, which is completely what's going on today," he says.

At least with the Italian Girl, all the conflicts come with a good laugh.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 34.

An Italian Girl in Algiers

Where: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St.

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow, 2 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Oct. 28 and 30

Tickets: $20 to $36

Call: 410-547-7997

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