Comedy in Opera
Let’s face it – when the subject of ridiculous opera plots comes up, L’Italiana has to be near the top of the list, right after Mozart and DaPonte’s Così fan tutte. Could any ruler be as totally clueless as Mustafa? Would anyone follow such a leader loyally, as do the Algerians in this opera? Would a leader who captured a beautiful young woman feel the need to court her rather than taking her by force?
This is not simply to apply modern standards to an opera written over two centuries ago. A reviewer at the time of the opera’s premiere noted, “If we look for customs, habits, truthfulness in action, there is in this book no trace of authenticity.” Many critics in Rossini’s own day attacked his lack of seriousness, his appeal to the irrational, and his use of stale formulas. Standahl’s comment on La Cenerentola, that it was “lacking in some essential quality of ideal beauty,” might well have applied to the other comedies as well.
Moreover, some critics have criticized Rossini for his inability to create fully rounded characters. Critic Paul Robinson’s description of Rosina’s aria in The Barber of Seville could equally apply to Isabella’s “Cruda sorte”: “Rosina has displayed herself for our benefit, and when she has finished, we are entirely convinced of one thing; she is …an opera singer….It would make no difference…if Rosina were singing about her resolve to become an opera singer.”
Let us grant that in comparison with Mozart, Rossini does not give us fully developed characters. Even Così fan tutte gives us three-dimensional characters placed in absurd situations. Whereas Mozart tugs at our heartstrings, Rossini goes for the funny bone.
But is this a fault? Comedy has often relied on absurd situations, and the villains or antagonists in classic comedies are often as obtuse as Mustafa. Consider, for example, the Germans in “Hogan’s Heroes,” the various characters played by Margaret Dumont, or even Wiley Coyote. Sometimes the protagonists themselves can be clueless, as in “I Love Lucy” or “Three’s Company,” shows which had lengthy runs on network television. Does comedy need believable characters to be successful? Were “M*A*S*H” and “All in the Family” better shows than “Seinfeld” and “Cheers”? Clearly there is room for both.
What we need to realize is that an opera is not simply a stage play set to music. It has its own logic, where the medium truly is the message. We can identify with the plight of Isabella, Lindoro, and Elvira not because we see them as real human beings but because we want to see decent people triumph over foolishness and tyranny. It is not the words which lead to this identification but the infectious power of Rossini’s melodies that allows us to leave the theater with our spirits uplifted.