It's debatable whether Rossini, of all composers, benefits from being performed in English translation. Of course, he's been one of the mainstays of English National Opera's repertoire for many years, not least because of the popularity of Jonathan Miller's production of The Barber of Seville, and the Chandos Opera in English series includes both Barber and The Thieving Magpie in its catalogue, but there were times when listening to this new recording of highlights from The Italian Girl in Algiers when I wished that the mostly excellent cast were singing in Italian.
A comparison with Claudio Abbado's classic recording starring Agnes Baltsa and Ruggero Raimondi helped reveal the main reason for the problem of translation, namely that Rossini's response to the sounds of the original Italian text is so vivid and specific that it doesn't always work in the same way in English. The percussive nature of the concerted finales in particular works a lot better in Italian: it seems to me, in fact, that Rossini often derives his jokes from the sound of the words in Italian, rather than the actual meaning of them, so when this is all transported into English, something is lost. The smoother sound of Italian in general, compared with our hard consonants, is also a factor.
Nevertheless, there's much to admire in David Parry's translation here, and the performance of the work under Brad Cohen generally sparkles. In the title role of Isabella, Jennifer Larmore once again proves her aptitude for this music, dispatching coloratura runs with ease and in particular underlining the humour of the opera. She revels in playing a naughty, sexy woman who has unbeatable power over men, something which comes across particularly in the Isabella-Mustafà duet, 'Oh, how amusing! He looks frightful!' She comes a bit unstuck with the high-lying cavatina 'Sweetest treasure, dearest pleasure', but the rondo finale is a pleasure throughout.
Barry Banks' sense of style in the bel canto repertoire is impeccable, and the intensity of expression he brings to the role of Lindoro makes a huge impression in his arias and ensembles, but the voice lacks the light freshness it once had so he makes heavy weather of the opening cavatina and duet. Alastair Miles' Mustafà is a wonderful portrait of a buffo buffoon and his contributions are always notable for his clarity of diction and poise. Nevertheless, he doesn't knock Raimondi's assumption of the role on Abbado's recording off its pedestal.
In smaller roles, Anne Marie Gibbons, Sarah Tynan (Elvira) and David Soar (Haly) participate as firm members of the ensemble without particularly standing out, but Alan Opie's Taddeo really stands out in spite of the brevity of the role in these highlights.
Cohen's conducting of the Philharmonia is high on imagination and detail, but for my taste some of the tempi are on the fast side (perhaps so that as much as possible could be fitted onto the seventy-seven-minute running time of the CD?). It's quite common for conductors to try to massage comedy out of an opera score by driving it as hard as possible, and although Cohen is by no means guilty of this throughout the recording, I find that sections of the overture and the first finale sweep along without leaving time for breathing and expression. Nevertheless, the vivacity and wit of the piece are always brought out, and there's such a coherence and liveliness about the whole that any small reservations are easily swept away in this pleasurable recording.
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