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L'Italiana in Algeri on DVD

seen again New Year 2007 and previous impressions endorsed - a favourite opera DVD (PGW)

review copied from The Opera Critic (2002)

ROSSINI L'Italiana in Algeri
Doris Soffel; Gunther von Kannen; Robert Gambill; Enric Serra etc
Stuttgart Radio SO/ Ralf Weikert
Stage Director: Michael Hampe
Recording Place: Schwetzinger Festspiele, 1987
Running Time: 148 min
Picture Format 4:3
Arthaus 100 120

Ideal home entertainment on the small (4:3) screen, this charming production from the small stage of the small rococo theatre in Schwetzingen is perfectly in scale, and we share the enjoyment with the audience who give more curtain calls after the first act than some operas receive at the end. It is an ensemble piece, held together by Ralf Weikert who keeps his Stuttgart musicians always on their toes, achieves split-second synchrony between pit and stage and generally leaves you wondering why you didn't always realise what a very good composer Rossini is, his music here paced to perfection and aptly contrasted for the mood of each scene.

Everyone is 'in character' throughout, and the camera catches some wonderful expressions, especially from the knowing, manipulative Isabella, Doris Soffel, with her effortless coloratura and fruity chest voice making us glad that the mezzos get so many of Rossini's best parts. The mock-menacing Mustafa, Gunter von Kannen, is easily duped by a pretty face but gets round his rapid patter singing well on the way. Really a softie, he ends up as an Italian 'Pappataci' devouring spaghetti. The Lindoro, American tenor Robert Gambill, is worth fighting for and soprano Nuccia Focile duly brings her erring husband to heel, so that proper family values are maintained. The exotic East (Algiers and Turkey mixed up in the libretto) gives scope for a convincing seaside setting and gorgeous costumes (Mauro Pagano), all skilfully lit by Jakob Schlossstein to take us right to this fairy-tale eastern Mediterranean.

Production, Michael Hampe, and camera work support the music, and the sound balance with the orchestra is perfect, so that the singers never need to shout in our drawing rooms, which can spoil the effect of some DVDs from large opera houses (the full technical cast list is given on the enclosed booklet, and there are subtitled translations). Finally, you return to marvel at this genius of a 21-yr old composer who, we are asked to believe, composed the whole thing in around three weeks of spring 1813 to fill a scheduling gap in Venice.

Being not one to chase the chimera of perfection, nor given to comparative reviewing, this Italiana is one of several DVDs which persuade me that the days of sound only recording of opera must be numbered, and now that opera is easily brought into every household inexpensively we can all appreciate that it is an indivisible sight-plus-sound experience, best experienced as a totality on the far from invariable occasions when there is mutual harmony and understanding between all the professionals whose skills have to be brought together.

If you don't like a particular 'concept' production, you can always listen to a DVD with the picture off! Opera video has come of age and for most of us who cannot get to Schwetzingen, this DVD is not a seriously inferior makeshift substitute for 'the real thing'.

Now available coupled with The Barber of Seville from the same director at the 1988 Schwetzinger Festival (Cecilia Bartoli in excellent voice before she began to be troubled by breathing problems) this bargain box is an irresistible purchase which should be in every collection.

© 2002 Peter Grahame Woolf - a classical music writer based in London