L’Italiana in Algeri, dramma giocoso in two acts to a libretto by Angelo Anelli, was first performed at the Teatro San Benedetto, Venice, on 22th May 1813.
The singers in the first performances were Filippo Galli (Mustafà), Luttgard Annibaldi (Elvira), Annunziata Berni Chelli (Zulma), Giuseppe Spirito (Haly), Serafino Gentili (Lindoro), Maria Marcolini (Isabella), Paolo Rosich (Taddeo).
The autograph manuscript full score is to be found at Casa Ricordi.
Mustafà, the Bey of Algiers, bored by the docile and submissive faithfulness of his countrywomen, is ready to overturn law and custom for a whim: he wants to win the love of a woman who is fiery and hard to tame. And if what he hears from Lindoro is true, the woman of his dreams shall be an Italian and no other; Lindoro is an Italian sailor who, three months earlier, has been captured and made into a slave. And so Mustafà has no compunction in casting off his wife, Elvira, who protests in vain, with sorrowful resignation, that she loves him truly even though he does not return her love: Mustafà offers to marry her off to Lindoro, whose thoughts, however, are altogether turned lovingly towards the girl he left behind in Italy. Mustafà then orders Haly, the chief of his Corsairs, to procure him within six days, on pain of being impaled, a fine example of Italian womanhood. Although Lindoro is by no means enthusiastic about the idea of taking on the responsibility of Elvira’s lovely face and loving heart, despite the noteworthy dowry that she would bring him, he seems to have no choice but to submit to Mustafà’s will.
A ship is cast up on the shores of Algiers by a storm. Haly, with his Corsairs, takes possession of its cargo and makes its passengers captive. Amongst them is the sad though ravishingly lovely Isabella, Lindoro’s beloved, who has set sail from Li-vorno to search for him, accompanied by her cavalier servente Taddeo, a faithful old beau who is hopelessly in love with her. Haly realizes at once that she is the happy solution of his problem: this lovely Italian girl exactly fits Mustafà’s description of the qualities required in the new favourite he is seeking for his harem. When she learns what fate has in store for her, Isabella does not lose heart, but bears up courageously amidst Haly’s threatenings and Taddeo’s lovesick gibbering. She certainly has all the qualities needed to get the situation under control, lacking neither courage nor the weapons of women’s most artful wiles in the art of seduction: first of all, she persuades Taddeo that in order to protect her he must pretend to be her uncle. Meanwhile Mustafà is offering Lindoro the chance to return to Italy on a Venetian ship on condition that he take Elvira with him; he is interrupted by Haly, who bursts in joyfully with good news for his master. Mustafà, overjoyed, loses his head; he gives orders that his wife’s ship sail at once, and prepares to welcome his longed-for lady guest with all due honours, resolving, however, that he will treat her with all the studied indifference of the man who knows how to humble women’s pride.
Elvira wishes to bid her husband a last farewell and Lindoro, anxious to be off at once, does not succeed in comforting her by promising her a rich crop of husbands and lovers in Italy. Mustafà receives Isabella in the most sumptuous hall in his palace. As she is a mistress of the arts of dissimulation and flattery, she succeeds in striking him directly in the heart with her seductive self-confidence. In this way she succeeds, first of all, in saving the life of Taddeo, whom Mustafà had peremptorily ordered to be impaled. Then, when Elvira and Lindoro come to bid Mustafà farewell, Isabella unexpectedly finds herself face to face with her beloved. Without giving away the secret of their attachment the lovers recognize one another at once and their reciprocal and unutterable astonishment communicates itself to the bystanders. When Isabella learns that these new arrivals are about to leave for Italy she rounds upon the Bey and angrily tells him that unless he gives up his barbarian ways he will have to give up any hope of conquering her. She orders him, therefore, to give up any idea of repudiating his wife, and to place the slave Lindoro at Isabella’s immediate and exclusive service. Enmeshed in the nets of love, what can Mustafà do but submit? Everyone is astonished at seeing so many unexpected changes in him, one after the other.
Whilst Elvira, Zulma and Haly are discussing Isabella’s cunning in making Mustafà dance to her tune, the Bey himself comes in to ask the two ladies to announce that he will shortly pay Isabella a visit. Mustafà will not listen to any suggestion that Isabella is leading him by the nose, and is sure that he will be able to win her by playing upon her ambition and by relying on the assistance of her supposed uncle. Meanwhile Isabella has a rendezvous with Lindoro: once she has assured herself that he harbours no amorous feelings for Elvira, she proposes that they escape together on the very ship that should have carried him back to Italy with the Bey’s repudiated wife, and arranges to meet him later in a wood to explain the details of her scheme in full. Meanwhile, to please Isabella and at the same time to obtain Taddeo’s help in the wooing of his supposed niece, Mustafà grants Taddeo the title of “Great Kaimakan”, and has him dressed as befits a Moslem lieutenant. The simple creature does not really feel at his ease in the costume and in the rôle imposed upon him by Mustafà; however, he can but make the best of it and resign himself to seeing the woman he loves, and whom he blindly believes to return his affection, happy in another man’s arms.
In her rooms, Isabella hears from Elvira that Mustafà is about to honour her with a visit; she pretends to feel flustered, and teaches the Bey’s wife her technique for subduing men to her will. Meanwhile, awaiting his rendezvous with Isabella with scarcely suppressed longing, Mustafà arranges with Taddeo that once the formal greetings are over, Taddeo-Kaimakan will discreetly retire; the signal will be a sneeze from Mustafà. But although Mustafà sneezes repeatedly, Taddeo pretends not to hear anything: Isabella and Lindoro enjoy a private laugh over the joke, whilst the Bey, forced to behave with perfect manners towards Elvira, as Isabella has insisted, rages and mutters in vain, feeling sure that he has been tricked. Everyone present, including his faithful retainer Haly, joins in the general well-earned contempt for Mustafà.
Having obtained the assistance of Taddeo, who does not know what is about to happen, Lindoro organizes yet another joke at Mustafà’s expense, telling the Bey that Isabella is wildly in love with him and for this reason wishes to elevate him to the rank of being her “Pappataci”, a title conferred in Italy only upon the most exemplary lovers, who are tireless in their wooing of the fair sex and for this reason spend their entire time sleeping, eating and drinking in the intervals between loving caresses. Meanwhile Haly and Zulma, Elvira’s slave, admiringly discuss the wily behaviour of Isabella, who has distributed a large number of bottles of wine to all the Moors on guard duty and to all the Eunuchs. Furthermore Lindoro explains to Taddeo that Isabella intends to procure the escape of all the Italians who are prisoners of the Bey. For this reason several of them will be dressed as Pappataci, in order to make the ceremony in honour of Mustafà more credible. Just then other Italians come on, all prepared for anything in the hopes of winning their freedom, and with inspired words Isabella inflames their patriotic ardour.
At last the ceremony gets under way: a chorus of Pappataci come forward and dress Mustafà in the garments and wig appertaining to the highest ranks of the order which Isabella is conferring upon him. The initiation ceremony prescribes a solemn oath of complete immobility and silence: the new Pappataci must do nothing but eat, drink and be silent, whatever may happen around him. And Isabella immediately puts the new candidate to the test by exchanging loving words with Lindoro whilst the Bey, under the vigilating eye of Taddeo, digs into his food. And now the boat of their hopes comes sailing up; Isabella invites Lindoro to follow her aboard and sail off with her, to realize their dreams of love and of returning home; only now does Taddeo realize that he too has been tricked, and that Isabella is not in love with him after all. And so he tries to prod the new Pappataci into activity, revealing how they have both been made fun of. However, Mustafà has learned his lesson too well to allow Taddeo’s words to shake his imperturbable indifference; Taddeo has to choose hurriedly between death by impalement, which will assuredly be his fate if he remains behind in Algiers, and the prospect of playing the undesirable a rôle in a “two’s company, three’s none” situation on the boat that will carry him home to Italy together with Isabella and Lindoro. Wisely, the elderly would be lover chooses the second alternative. And when at last Elvira, Zulma and Haly succeed in shaking Mustafà out of his torpor, his panic-stricken commands to his guards have no effect at all; thanks to Isabella’s foresight, they are all drunk. Nothing is left to the poor Bey but to ask his faithful wife to forgive him, and she is ready to welcome him into her arms.