Rossini's Woman of Valor
“Cruda sorte” – cruel fate! These are the first words we hear from Isabella, the title character of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers). Captured by pirates, looking – in vain, she believes – for her lover, soon to be forced to become part of an Arab potentate’s harem, she certainly is someone who has the right to sing the blues, or at least the nineteenth-century Italian equivalent. And so she does – for twenty-six bars – which is all the time that a Rossini heroine has for self-pity. As she moves to the up-tempo cabaletta, she reminds us that no man, however powerful, could possibly control an intelligent woman.
And so it goes with the Rossini mezzo. Like Rosina in The Barber of Seville, who acts docile as long as she has her way and turns into a viper when she doesn’t, Isabella clearly has the inner resources to come out on top. Critic Andreas Richter calls her a “female Don Giovanni” – albeit, without the latter’s amorality. As the Don had the three principal female characters in the opera gravitating toward him, Isabella wins the affection of three men – one of each voice type – manipulating two of them mercilessly. (Another similarity: like Mozart’s opera, l’Italiana is labelled a “dramma giocosa” – a jolly drama). L’Italiana is a rescue opera, but, as Beethoven was to do years later in Fidelio, Rossini and Anelli turn the rescue theme on its head by making the woman the rescuer.
In his book Viva la Liberta: Politics in Opera, Anthony Arblaster sees this elevation of women as typical of comic opera: “Opera buffa had this subversive background from the start, and it is not surprising to find… in opera as in drama, a reversal of the normal power relations between men and women….Men can laugh at this, too, secure in the knowledge of their real power and privilege; women may well respond more fervently, and identify themselves more deeply with these fables of fortunes reversed and vain fools outwitted.” In this opera, the superior abilities of women are taken for granted. Isabella even goes beyond other opera heroines of the era in her efforts to introduce her liberated ideals into the Arab world, telling her Algerian counterpart that the key to a successful marriage is for the woman to take control.
The nineteenth century saw the beginning of romanticism, a literary movement which idealized women. Richard Wagner introduced the principle of the “eternal feminine.” However, Rossini’s heroines are a far cry from Wagner’s self-sacrificing heroines. They are assertive women who get what they want for themselves while – in the case of Isabella and Angelina (Cinderella) at least – making the world around them a better place. It might be an anachronism to call Rossini and his librettists feminists, but it is clear that they understood and admired “girl power.” The libretto for this opera was a rewrite of an earlier one by the same librettist for a different composer, and scholars who have studied both versions have noted that Rossini clearly wanted to make Isabella stronger in his version. L’Italiana is clearly a fantasy, but it is one we all can enjoy.