Overture to L’Italiana in Algeri
Gioachino Antonio Rossini was born on February 29, 1792, in the Adriatic port of Pesaro in the Marches and died on November 13, 1869, in Passy, a suburb of Paris. He composed L’Italiana in Algeri or The Italian Girl in Algiers, an opera in two acts, in 1813, and it was first produced at the Teatro San Benedetto in Venice on May 22 that year. The overture was first heard in the United States on March 4, 1824, performed by an orchestra at New York’s City Hotel. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the overture in January 1939 with Pierre Monteux conducting; the most recent performances, in May 1995, were led by Mario Bernardi. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus trombone, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, and strings. Duration: about eight minutes.
When he stopped writing operas, at the age of thirty-seven, Rossini had composed thirty-nine of them. You needn’t do much math to conclude that he was an almost compulsively productive artist. L’Italiana in Algeri—The Italian Girl in Algiers—is Rossini’s most popular comedy after The Barber of Seville. The bubbly music of the overture speaks of fun to come once the curtain rises, yet the overture to Rossini’s bloody tragedy Semiramide promises the same thing. Among good composers, Rossini takes all prizes for dissociation of words (or situations) and music. In fact the overture that seems so perfect to introduce The Barber of Seville had served twice before to introduce tragedies. Perhaps all this can be explained by the many deadlines under which Rossini labored and the speed at which he was compelled to compose. Only at the end of his operatic career, with the overture to William Tell, did he embrace the concept that a prelude could prepare an audience for what it was about to see. That, however, does not concern us at present. The Italian Girl in Algiers is most definitely a comedy. The plot, in brief: Isabella’s lover Lindoro has been kidnapped, and in her search for him she is shipwrecked and taken captive by Mustafa, Bey of Algiers. To her amazement and delight, she finds Lindoro among the Bey’s prisoners. Isabella hatches a plot that involves flirtation and stealth, and together she and Lindoro escape.
Overture and stage action are matched. This introductory music promises laughs, and it delivers.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: Claudio Abbado conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Deutsche Grammophon) | Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony (Decca Eloquence) | Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI Classics)
Reading: Rossini, by Richard Osborne (Oxford University Press, Master Musicians series) | The New Grove Masters of Italian Opera, by Philip Gossett (Norton) | Rossini: A Biography, by Herbert Weinstock (Knopf)