Taking On 19th-Century Opera Stereotypes for a Modern Audience

What happens when a powerful man makes moves on a strong, independent woman who has no intention of accepting his advances? And how are things further complicated if he is Middle Eastern and she is Western and their cultures fundamentally clash?

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RESTRICTED -- Salzburg Festival Explores Music of Human Passion
Nina Siegal
, New York Times

What happens when a powerful man makes moves on a strong, independent woman who has no intention of accepting his advances? And how are things further complicated if he is Middle Eastern and she is Western and their cultures fundamentally clash?

These are some of the basic narrative elements of Gioachino Rossini’s 1813 comedic opera “L’Italiana in Algeri” (“The Italian Girl in Algiers”), which tells the story of Mustafa, a Turkish bey, or governor, who wants to jettison his wife, Elvira, and who complains that Muslim women are too ingratiating and submissive. He seeks the exciting temperament and sexual prowess of an Italian woman, he says, and tasks his assistant, Haly, with finding him one, on pain of death, within six days.

As operatic good fortune might have it, Haly stumbles upon Isabella, a victim of a recent shipwreck. She is searching for her fiancé, Lindoro, who was captured by pirates and who now, by coincidence, is a servant in Mustafa’s court.

For a modern audience, this story treads on territory that is quite sensitive, sociologically speaking. There are sexual politics, colonial implications and a clash of Eastern and Western values. Not to mention harems and eunuchs and Ottoman rulers, which don’t seem so relevant today.

Nevertheless, the Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, chose to take on this opera as her latest revival of Rossini, one of her favorite composers, to mark the 150th anniversary of his death this year.

Following two performances at the Whitsun in May, where she sang the lead role of Isabella, she is bringing the production, and her part, to the Salzburg Festival for five performances from July 20 to Aug. 30. Jean-Christophe Spinosi is conducting, and Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier are directing.

But how to handle such an opera in a #MeToo context and in an age of tense East-West affairs? Leiser and Caurier, who have collaborated since 1983, were aware of the potential pitfalls of trying to take on such a work at this political moment, Leiser said.

“The last thing I wanted was Western elite people going to the Salzburg opera and having a lot of fun seeing how ‘stupid’ the Arabs are,” Leiser said. “You must be very politically aware that we are not laughing about, but we are laughing with.”

He said they attempted to navigate the work by trying to be perfectly clear about the political messages they were sending.

“What I believe is that, according to the political context you’re in, you must be very aware of the references you’re using and how you present human suffering or human madness, whether it’s a tragedy or a comedic opera,” he said. “You must be very careful about whose side you’re on when you deal with characters in an opera. But you must also be very sure that you’re not turning your art form into a gourmet experience for vocal fudge-makers.”

“L’Italiana in Algeri,” considered one of Rossini’s first “mature” comic operas, was written when the Italian composer was 21 years old, in the early 19th century, and reflects certain cultural biases that were common at the time, Leiser said.

Earlier interpretations tended to stick close to the original libretto, which exhaustively mines the comic potential of cultural clashes. For the last 50 years, Leiser said, the traditional take was to portray the Arabs with long pointy shoes and big funny turbans, while the Italians were presented as elegant and dignified.

“The piece at its core, in a certain way, is a very Western take on Islamic culture, and normally Mustafa is portrayed as just stupid and ugly and the Italians are clever and very heroic,” Leiser said. “That was something I was not interested in at all. We had to find another story line to keep the genius of Rossini and the music and the libretto, and keep it as a real comedy, because it’s important to laugh. But comedy is serious business, and you must know what you are laughing about.”

Rather than altering the libretto, which Leiser said would be “cheating,” he engaged in many long conversations with Bartoli and Caurier to shift the interpretation. They decided to change Mustafa’s status from an Ottoman bey to a kind of local gangster who smuggles electronics at the port of modern-day Algiers, because they “felt that his behavior shouldn’t be generalized as Muslim behavior.”

While we see him repudiate his wife in a very ugly way, said Leiser, we also see him as a lover who falls victim to the cruel plot of the Italians. While Isabella is presented as seductive and powerful in one scene, he said, she is also shown in another scene as vulnerable as she tries to escape. “A good comedy is made of complexities."

And instead of avoiding the cultural stereotypes inherent in the piece, the collaborators decided to amplify them across the board so that all the characters in the opera look equally ridiculous, and equally human.

“Alfred Hitchcock said that if you are doing a movie in Switzerland, you must at a certain moment have a cuckoo clock,” Leiser said. “When you go to Algeria you must have camels and people eating couscous, and when you see Italians you must have spaghetti, which is very funny because it’s basically the same carbohydrate. The clichés are important; they’re part of the comedy. You should not avoid the clichés, you should use them.”

Leiser said that they had to be very conscientious to make sure the jokes worked and that they didn’t send the wrong kinds of message.

“Every moment, every bar of music, you have choices to make and you have to be conscious of your choices,” Leiser said. “We are very keen on keeping the humanity of the characters; that means that a character is complex, and it has contradictions.”

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