L’italiana in Algeri:
A small part but a big challenge
Our talented friends, Mattia and Michelle from LuccaOperaFestival invited me to help and even appear in their production of Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri at the delightful Teatro dei Rassicurati in the very picturesque hill-top town of Montecarlo just a few kilometres from Lucca.
Under the musical direction of Jonathan Brandini and overall direction by Stefania Panighini the cast of singers drawn from Italy, Spain and Argentina assembled and my first encounter with them was a lively and very 'vocal' long lunch at Trattoria di Ubaldo near the Lucca's anfiteatro. Rehearsals started a week before around the 15th May at the teatro. Accommodation in various farmhouses around Montecarlo were found for the cast as well as simple meals provided by Mattia, family and friends. As professional singers they all came knowing their individual parts but since I had no knowledge of the opera, little knowledge of Rossini, very basic Italian and no experience of ever appearing on stage in front of a paying public, the prospect was daunting.
However, with much help from all those involved, the camaraderie grew and by the time of the full dress rehearsal in front of an audience of college students I felt a little more confident but still unsure of my 'entrances and exits' on stage. This was partly due to the fact that I was included in the male chorus dressed as an Algerian sailor, holding an artichoke, as well as being required to do some scene shifting during the performance. My ability to following some simple stage directions and locate positional marks for props in semi-darkness proved challenging and although my part was small I was on stage much more that I had expected.
Finally the two days of performances on the 22nd and 23rd May arrived and with much excitement backstage everyone involved gave of their best. L'italiana in Algeri is a light-hearted comedy or dramma giocoso written by Rossini and first performed at the Teatro San Benedetto in Venice on 22 May 1813, so our performance was exactly 202 years later. It was a great success for Rossini and following further performances in Vicenza, Milan and Naples the opera was presented at His Majesty's Theatre at the Haymarket in London on 28 January 1819 and even in New York 1832.
Gioachino Antonio Rossini was born in Pesaro in 1792 into a musical family insomuch that his mother Anna, a baker’s daughter, sang and his father Giuseppe, an inspector of slaughterhouses, played the horn. His parents were however keen to start his musical education early despite his father’s brief imprisonment for supporting Napoleon. His mother took him to Bologna where under the care of a pork butcher he was to be apprenticed as a blacksmith. However his undoubted musical talent meant that by 1806 he had enrolled as a cello student at the Conservatorio di Bologna. Aged just twenty Rossini gained rapid international success and according to the Oxford History of Western Music ‘Rossini’s fame surpassed that of any previous composer’. Other famous works such as The Barber of Seville (1816)), Othello (1816) and William Tell (1829) remain firmly in the operatic canon.
Rossini’s other great life-long passion was food and as a well-known gourmand he enjoyed being an amateur chef hosting artistic and literary figures in Paris after retiring from composing. Many dishes bear the distinction ‘alla Rossini’ with the most famous being the meat dish tournedos Rossini an obvious homage to his childhood influences. I have come to regard Rossini as an interesting character as well as a great composer.
For me, the opera being a light-hearted comedy and with the music, typical of Rossini's style 'remarkable for its fusion of sustained manic energy with elegant, pristine melodies' meant that the whole experience was a complete joy and if 'things’ did not quite go to plan it didn't seem to matter and just added to the charm of the performance. The audience, including family and friends, were very appreciative and the event was an enjoyable success, if perhaps not a financial one! I was delighted to watch the performance on Lucca’s local broadcast channel Noi TV and again when a positive review appeared in the prestigious Italian magazine l’opera.