Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers

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            There are any numbers of great composers who have been able to produce overtures that entertain, lift the spirits, and bring musical “sizzle” to a symphony concert.  But almost none excel those of Gioachino Rossini in sparkle, wit, and vivacity.  Their droll wit, sly contrasts of mood, and careening drive to the end are simply inimitable.  From their conception for Italian opera audiences primarily in the first decade of the nineteenth century, to their familiar use as springboards for movie and television high jinks today, they simply endure. 

            Rossini was the most important composer of nineteenth-century Italian opera before Giuseppe Verdi.  And while he is historically significant for his innovations in serious Italian opera, clearly his opere buffa, or comic operas, are his lasting contributions for opera fans everywhere.  These are works of his early maturity, roughly before 1820, before he began to focus upon a more serious style.  American audiences are most familiar with The Italian Girl in Algiers (1813) and The Barber of Seville (1816), but there are other masterpieces, as well.  After wide European success in the 1820s, Rossini wangled a lifetime annuity from the French government about the time of the composition of his crowning achievement, William Tell (1829)—a French grand opera—and promptly retired at the age of thirty-seven.  For the next forty-odd years he enjoyed the largess of the French government, and composed very little, certainly no major operas.  It’s not that he was lazy, although a famous anecdote relates that while composing in bed (which he usually did) he dropped an unfinished aria on the floor, and rather than go to the trouble of getting up to retrieve it, he simply composed another one!  In his defense, we should recognize how much work that he had accomplished early:  34 operas by the time that he was 31.

            The Italian Girl in Algiers was given its first performance in Venice in May of 1813, and if there is an award for the most zany of Italian comic operas, then this one surely gets the plume.   The plot is impossible to summarize briefly, but it consists of the usual mistaken identities, exotic settings, implausible relationships, and in this case, a Turkish Bey, or lord, who needs an Italian girl to alleviate his boredom with his harem.  The overture begins quietly with soft pizzicatos in the strings, lulling the listener, only to be startled by a sudden fortissimo outburst from the whole orchestra.  A poignant oboe solo follows.  Soon, the allegro kicks in, and we’re off to the races.  A series of vivacious, brief solos by the various woodwinds follow, aptly illustrating why this work is a perennial favorite of woodwind players.  Here and there, and especially towards the end, the famous  “Rossini crescendo”  (a passage with a repeating figure over static harmonies, that constantly gets louder) generates the excitement for which Rossini is famous, and which never fails to please.   It all simply reminds us that great art isn’t always profound, but can also stir with adroit simplicities.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan