L’Italiana in Algeri (1998)


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Di Micco, Pertusi, Matteuzzi, Praticò, Dell’Oste, Zaramella, Novaro; Callegari; Pizzi, dir. In Italian, no subtitles. (1998). 145m. Color PAL VHS

This Italiana is evidence that Italians have reclaimed their preeminence in Rossini. Moreover, the performance makes clear that, heard with traditional cuts opened, the score sustains interest better than versions with mutilated musical architecture.

The last generation of Italian Rossini performers had fallen behind Americans and others in the ability to sing florid or high-flying passages. The Italians were more sunny and ingratiating but less virtuosic. Italian tradition had come to sanction cutting the most difficult passages. Singers (tenors, in particular) omitted trills and high notes and simplified or smudged coloratura.

Part of the problem is that, since Del Monaco (really, since Caruso), Italian tenors haven’t stopped striving for a macho image. Adelaide Negri told me Dano Raffanti told her, “Horne promised me that if I sang the Rossini repertory, she would help me. But if I don’t sing Verdi and verismo, people will say I’m a faggot [froscio].”

Of the current Rossini tenors, Italian and otherwise, William Matteuzzi is the most accurate, agile-voiced and musicianly. He uses a crescendo to build a phrase to its moment of greatest harmonic tension (an appoggiatura or other dissonance), then tapers the following consonance, a moment of harmonic relaxation. Because of the influence of such conductors as Gavazzeni and Muti, Italians since the war have done little or no ornamenting of vocal lines. Not so Matteuzzi, who decorates the repeat of his first-act cabaletta. But he sometimes sacrifices tone quality on the altar of brilliance of tempo and ornamentation, to the point that his tone turns white. (Giovanni David, a principal Rossini “creator,” was accused of the same thing–by his star-tenor father, no less.)

Matteuzzi’s ornamentation itself consists not of divisions, as generally was the case in Rossini’s day, but of interpolations. (With divisions, for example, each written eighth note is replaced by two 16th notes, so that the music becomes twice as florid.) His mezza-voce matches the timbre of his full voice even on a high B-flat in “Languir per una bella,” but he has a bleaty forte C. It’s hard to hear him in ensembles (the same thing was said of Rubini). His tone isn’t full bodied, his breath supply is short and he has no trill. But he doesn’t have to distort vowels by covering–and yet he has no passaggio problems. He keeps up at the take-no-prisoners tempo of the duet with the bass.

He ends his entrance aria on a high E-flat–a solecism. In music of this period it is not enough to end on the tonic; for the melody to be resolved one must also end on the tonic in the octave in which the melody is centered. This is all the more true in cases where the melody has not gone higher than that tonic in the phrases preceding the end of the piece. To justify ending on the high E-flat, Matteuzzi would have had to relocate the tessitura upward so that it lay in that octave.

The second act can drag, but not here, one of the highlights being the “Pappataci” trio. Anna Maria Di Micco sings Isabella’s “Una donna t’insegna ad esser forte” with abundant chest resonance, in the manner of Rossini’s day. “Pensa alla patria” is well decorated. She has a good top and contrasts strong and weak measures effectively.

Today’s Italian basses and baritones can move their voices, Pertusi in particular. His presence is magnetic–and the performance’s center of gravity. He makes you feel happy. And he has a good trill. He and Praticò play off each other, with a big variety of inflections. What a surprise to hear basses trading top As! Praticò’s voice is mellow and he phrases with forward motion.

The performance is uncommonly high-spirited and infectious, without being exaggerated; it makes you smile with pleasure and never irritates. It is conducted with brio in allegro passages and is full of myriad felicitous details, including interpolated, well-executed appoggiaturas–life-giving dissonances. The ensembles chatter madly. (In recitatives, however, the continuo is intrusively busy.)

The staging is brilliant–full of wonderful touches–the production beautiful.–Stefan Zucker