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A Captive in Control: 'L'italiana in Algeri'

Both Gioachino Rossini and Ludwig van Beethoven were dominant composers during the early 1800s. Aside from that they have very little in common, especially when it comes to opera.

Sometime before 1809, Rossini began composing his very first opera, beginning a career that produced everything from deadly serious tragedies, to historical epics to frothy comedies. By the time he was done, Rossini had written nearly 40 operas, and was famous in theaters all over Europe.

In 1804 Beethoven got started on his own first opera, launching an operatic career that concluded about 10 years later — when he finally finished that same opera. It was the only one he ever composed.

Still, these two, very different opera composers do share one common thread. They both took a dramatic formula that was extremely popular among opera lovers early in the 19th century — something called the "rescue opera" — and turned it upside down. Beethoven did it in his only opera, Fidelio, and Rossini followed suit in the opera featured here, his 1813 comedy L'italiana in Algeri.

A typical rescue opera involves a beautiful young woman who is kidnapped or captured, and faces torture and death until her heroic lover shows up and saves the day. But in Fidelio and L'italiana, the tables are turned: In both operas it's a man who's in desperate trouble, and it takes a resourceful woman to get him out of it.

L'italiana in Algeri is usually translated as The Italian Girl in Algiers. But if Isabella, Rossini's title character, were transported into today's world, nobody would dare call her a "girl." She's one of the wisest and most formidable women you'll find in any opera, and by the time her story ends, no one — including her captive lover Lindoro — is willing to stand in her way.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a Washington National Opera production of Rossini's comedy starring mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, as Isabella, alongside one of today's leading Rossini tenors, Juan Diego Florez, as Lindoro.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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