OPERA / Welcome to the menagerie: Della Couling reports from Pesaro on Dario Fo's second encounter with the wit of Rossini

Dario Fo says, 'We should never forget that Rossini was a Voltairean. He had no time for sentimentality and high-flown phrases.' It has certainly not been forgotten in Fo's triumphant production of L'Italiana in Algeri at this year's Rossini Festival in Pesaro - the second onslaught on the composer by someone else who can never be accused of indulging in sentimentality (Fo directed a very successful Barber of Seville here in 1987).

Rossini's caustic wit - particularly evident in the orchestra, where sentiments nobly expressed on stage are mercilessly undercut - is matched by Fo's staging (he also designed sets and costumes). In this off-the- peg tale of wicked oriental despots outwitted by quick-thinking Italians, when the captive tenor hero, Lindoro (Markus Schafer), bewails his fate and his lost love Isabella, his sorrows are mocked both by the music and by an on- stage camel, two monkeys, a giraffe and an ostrich.

In his research, Fo discovered that for the 1813 Venice premiere, the 21-year-old Rossini had specified not only seven principal singers but also comic dancers, clowns, acrobats, jugglers: 50 in all. Where have they all gone? Killed, says Fo, by the 19th-century taste for melodrama.

Here they are all fully restored, starting with the overture, when we see a stormy sea (rows of painted waves moved from side to side by acrobatic extras), leaping fish, swooping seagulls (on long wands), rain (blue streamers), plus pirates, mariners and captive passengers. The style is Fo, the idiom pure commedia dell'arte - brilliantly illustrating not only Fo's long roots in that tradition but also Rossini's.

Fo's bawdy humour is much in evidence: when the Bey Mustafa (Donato Di Stefano) enters, he is wheeled on in what is clearly - despite oriental ornamentation - an erect phallus. And when Isabella (Jennifer Larmore) is changing, and spied on by the lustful Mustafa and his men, the palm trees hiding them suddenly all get a lot taller.

This is a very feminist opera: men are weak and ridiculous, women are strong. And, as always with Fo, and again in true commedia dell'arte tradition, nothing is sacred. When Isabella, confident of outwitting the Bey, sings a long patriotic aria, we see below her a very questionable bunch of Italians, all concentrating their patriotic fervour first on a football team, then on cheering a group of racing cyclists who end up in a tangled crash.

Jennifer Larmore as Isabella proves yet again that she is now one of the world's leading Rossini mezzos. The bass Donato Di Stefano as Mustafa, another excellent Rossini exponent, also shows great comic skills (and courage: in a boastful aria, his male swagger is made ridiculous in that he is being manhandled round the stage in a Leonardo- esque flying machine as flimsy as his fantasies). The weak link in an otherwise extremely strong cast was the young tenor, Markus Schafer: a late replacement, he was vocally not up to the demands of the role. The conductor David Robertson got a sharp, sparkling performance out of the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna.

Like Fo's first foray into Rossini, this is a co-production with the Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, where it can be seen this coming season.

(Photograph omitted)