When the word “crescendo” is mentioned in music two composers immediately come to mind. For a long time the Mannheim crescendo, created by Stamitz’s orchestra, famously described by musical traveller Charles Burney as an ”army of generals”, dominated the European musical scene – that is, until Gioachino Rossini came on the stage with the rapidity of a cork suddenly ejected from a bottle of the best spumante.
There are, of course, formal differences between the two crescendo types: the Mannheim, centred on a single tonic with entering thirds and fifths and the Rossinian, based on an alternation of tonic and sub-dominant chords with an ostinato bass line. They have, however, one thing in common: they start very softly and end up very loudly!
LuccaOpera Festival production of Gioachino (or Gioacchino as it’s often spelt) Rossini’s “l’Italiana in Algeri “ began its extended sequence of crescendi from the very start of the overture, from those soft pizzicato chords which sounded so right on gut strings.
For this performance, the second one (and, alas, the last one to be given in Montecarlo’s – the Tuscan Montecarlo, I hasten to add – “Teatro degli Rassicurati”, a superbly miniaturised version of a classic eighteenth century theatre with an elegant intimacy and wondrous acoustics, has been probably the first one since the opera’s première in 1819 to use historically informed instruments.
We are, of course used to hearing “authentic instruments (as if the whole thing could have been played on a synthesiser….) in Handelian and baroque operas but less so when entering the nineteenth century. The effect of using original (or copies of original instruments) by the accompanying “orchestra dell ’Eloquenza” conducted by the ever-rising star of Jonathan Brandani, now truly established as a conductor of the greatest talent in three continents (when will he invade Asia, I wonder?) was quite revelatory. The clarity of the woodwind was gorgeous and a true complement to the strings. The two valveless horn players were nothing short of miraculous and the recitativo continuo, sometime on almost viola-da- gamba sounding cellos and also on an 1800 Joseph Kirkman fortepiano from London, was delightful. The late Christopher Hogwood, to whom the performance was dedicated, and whose sister was among the audience, would have loved it. I’m sure that supernal intervention was interceded for him to listen to a performance which was truly pleasurable and absolutely inspired.
The singers were all, without exception, top-notch with great acting and mimicry abilities, fully able to leap across, up and round the often impossibly super-virtuosistic roulades and vocal ornamentations which Rossini (and his audience) delighted in.
The timbre of the singer’s voices was also excellently chosen. It would be churlish to single out any vocalist for extraordinary praise but Loriana Castellano’s Isabella was quite outstanding. Her dark lower register blossomed out into brightest sunshine in an exhilarating vocal range. David Ferri Durà’s Lindoro had a most seductive head voice. Mustafa was equally imposing and dim-witted. Campetti’s Taddeo revealed further aspects of his great ability to impersonate figures of fun without demeaning them unduly. Every singer put their most in their role with the greatest effect.
The fusion of great singing, convincing acting and a superb production was, in short a feast worthy of the most gargantuan event and served with the most effervescent musical bubbly one could hope to guzzle down without being over-inebriated.
As for the story: I sometimes think champagne should be served before a performance of a Rossini opera rather than afterwards, but the fizzy, manic, head-lightening mixture of intrigue, reality, fantasy, dotage, trickery, love, stealth and subterfugal intricacies of the plot more than made up for the champagne which followed afterwards for the lucky ones.
Stefania Panighini, the producer, fully understood and realised that half-reality, half-dream state in the Rossinian world in her production where a magic mirror of desires played a prominent part.
Looking through the list of thirty nine operas Rossini composed I remark on the number of those who chose oriental Arabian-night types of scenarios.
Apart from the “Italiana in Algeri”, there is “Ciro in Babilonia”, “Aureliano in Palmira”, Il Turco in Italia”, “Mosè in Egitto, “Maometto II” and “Semiramide”.
This list and the use of “oriental” sounding instruments in some of them (including a big tambourine in “L’Italiana in Algeri”) shows Rossini’s musical language’s direct descent from such works as Mozart’s “die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail”. It’s such a great pity that today’s Near and Middle East, which once evoked such hilarious plot encounters between east and western customs, is now clouded in our minds by the almost unbelievable savagery that is happening in those regions as I write.
For the eighteenth and nineteenth century audience, eons away from the realpolitik world of today, east and west meant side-splitting encounters between different sets of morals, between lascivious sultans lounging on plush velvets with houris and odalisques while western wives and women, caught up in the white slave trade, used their sharpest wits to disengage themselves from opium-infested decadence and assert the supreme beauty, both aesthetic and moral of the western woman, especially the Italian version (!), to declare loudly comme il faut. Heady days indeed!
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to spread into a dream cocoon and imagine Rossini’s “Aureliano in Palmira” performed among the resplendent ruins of a peaceful Palmyra? But then I’m entering that make-believe world that many of us are today forced to hide in to forget for a little while the sordidness of so much of the human world around us. But then isn’t that what Dr. Johnson’s “exotic and irrational” entertainment does best? Opera make us forget and gives respite and much needed enjoyment in these dark days for our world.
For too long I thought of Rossini as second-rate or even third rate Mozart, This production made me feel for the first time how catching that “Rossiniana” fever was which swept Europe in the first quarter of the nineteenth century and infected such diverse composers as Schubert and even Beethoven himself, who wisely told the Pesaro composer “Ah, Rossini. So you’re the composer of The Barber of Seville. I congratulate you. It will be played as long as Italian opera exists. Never try to write anything else but opera buffa; any other style would do violence to your nature.”
Not altogether right was Ludwig, however. After all, Rossini finished his operatic career with “William Tell” which set the standard for serious romantic opera to follow for the rest of the century.
What a pity Rossini didn’t write any more operas after 1829 although he lived almost another forty years and died in 1867. I still wonder why. Perhaps, as the most popular composer of that era, indeed, a Lloyd Webber of his time, he’d made enough money and thought “why bother”, although, it’s true that he did write religious pieces as an insurance policy for the next life he might lead.
Final thanks for this memorable production have to go to Heather Jarman who contributed most generously, among the donors, to getting the Italian girl to and from Algiers (or Montecarlo as it was in reality). In a moving homage to Christopher Hogwood, Heather, whose personal assistant she was, mentioned the historically informed dinners Christopher would love to cook up. Indeed, the only disappointment I might have had about Montecarlo’s whole fizzy evening was that I could not find a restaurant in the place to serve us up with Tournedos a la Rossini”.
Anyway, here is that recipe which I must try out while listening to my ecstatic re-discovery of the great composer and bon-viveur’s music:
INGREDIENTS (SERVES 6)
- beef fillet
- ⅜ oz butter
- 1 slice fois gras fresh
- 2 slices black truffle
- 1 slice sliced bread
- 1 tablespoon Madera wine
25 minutes preparation + 10 minutes cooking
Tie up the fillet slices with string so that they retain their round shape while cooking: Brown in butter until medium-rare, then remove the string.
Fry in oil and butter the slices of bread; arrange a tournedos on each bread slice, put the foie gras slice on top and garnish with the truffle shavings previously sautéed in butter.
Pour the Madera wine into the meat cooking juices and reduce; drizzle this reduction over the tournedos when ready to serve.
PS Music professor Paula Chesterman of Tuscan Talent was also present at the performance and her post at
also contains video extracts from the production.