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Rescue Reversed: Rossini's 'L'Italiana in Algeri'

The triumph of Italy: Rossini's 'L'Italiana In Algeri' at the Opéra de Lausanne
Marc Vanappelghem
Opéra de Lausanne
The triumph of Italy: Rossini's 'L'Italiana In Algeri' at the Opéra de Lausanne

Both Gioachino Rossini and Ludwig van Beethoven were dominant composers during the early 1800s. Aside from that shared chronology, they have very little in common, especially when it comes to opera.

Sometime before 1809, when he was still a teenager, Rossini began composing his very first opera, beginning a career that produced everything from deadly serious tragedies to historical epics to frothy comedies. By the time he was done, Rossini had written nearly 40 operas, and was famous in theaters all over Europe.

In 1804, while in his mid-thirties, Beethoven got started on his own first opera. That launched an operatic career which concluded about 10 years later — when he finally finished that same score. It was the only opera he ever composed.

Still, these two very different composers do share one common thread. They both took a dramatic formula that was extremely popular among opera lovers early in the 19th century — something called the "rescue opera" — and turned it upside down. Beethoven did it in his only opera, Fidelio, and Rossini followed suit in the opera featured here, his 1813 comedy L'italiana in Algeri.

A typical rescue opera involves a beautiful young woman who is kidnapped or captured and then faces torture and death — that is, until her heroic lover shows up and saves the day. But in both Fidelio and L'italiana, the tables are turned: in both operas it's a man who is in desperate trouble, and it takes a resourceful woman to get him out of it.

L'italiana in Algeri is usually translated as The Italian Girl in Algiers. But if Isabella, Rossini's title character, were transported to the present day, nobody would dare call her a "girl." She's one of the wisest and most formidable women you'll find in any opera, and by the time her story ends, no one — including her captive lover Lindoro — is willing to stand in her way.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production of L'italiana in Algeri from the Lausanne Opera in Switzerland. Mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus is Isabella, with tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Lindoro, the young man she rescues from desperate straits.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.