Rossini (L') Italiana in Algeri
“Vulgar” was the verdict of the New York Times when Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production was first staged at the Met in 1973. In her autobiography, published 20 years later, Marilyn Horne recalls the reaction with some amusement, which she could well afford since in L’italiana she scored one of the great successes of her career, a triumph which was certainly not diminished by this revival of 1986. Whether filming has played down the offensive elements or whether time has further eroded our standards in such matters, it seems unlikely that the annihilating word will be on the lips of many viewers today. The bare-bellied eunuchs are not a pretty sight, but they are not for long. The Italian sailors made up for the Pappataci ceremony are kitted out with red noses as though for Comic Relief Day, but they’re soon off and away in the ship that magically sails onstage. And Mustapha’s mountain of spaghetti is moderation itself compared with what I seem to remember of the Ponnelle production brought to Covent Garden from Vienna in 1988. In fact the staging is, for the most part, imaginative and stylish, even at times rather beautiful.
Another feature mentioned by Marilyn Horne is her first entrance. Initially she thought it a crazy idea to have her come in backwards, turning to the audience only when her first notes were due, but of course she soon found it worked, and she is clearly delighted to be going through the routine again here. Her own glowing enjoyment is a great life-enhancer throughout, and her voice, if a little less full-bodied than of old on top, is still rich, flexible and utterly individual. Paolo Montarsolo in his famous role of the Bey of Algiers knows exactly what to do and his zest too is infectious. Taddeo is presented, rather engagingly, as a bespectacled professional figure who can’t be doing with all this 1001 Nights nonsense. Douglas Ahlstadt is a lively, personable Lindoro with well schooled technique though tonally not ingratiating in the upper register. The others are fine and the ensemble work is spirited and precise. Levine conducts with good-humoured firmness, and the orchestra play as though Rossini is their number-one composer.