Rossini's Italiana in Algeri (An Italian Girl in Algiers)
Dates and Venue 26, 29, 31 January and 2 February 2008 @ 7:30 pm | Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Conductor Robert Wood Director Michael Cavanagh Sets Robert Innes Hopkins Costumes David C. Woolard Lighting Alan Brodie
Isabella Sandra Piques Eddy Lindoro John Tessier Mustaphà Randall Jakobsh Elvira Sookhyung Park Taddeo Hugh Russell Zulma Barbara Towell Haly Brian McIntosh
Reviewer J H Stape
P. T. Barnum meets Joe Rossini in this production loudly ballyhooed as "Amelia Earhart meets the Marx Brothers" ( ... I prefer Karl). And there's certainly no accounting for tastes, so if you like slapstick, visual gags, and your ham thick cut -- and certainly a good part of the opening night audience did -- this outing of Italiana is sure to charm the pants off you.
If you're not so inclined, you're likely to find it cloying, tiresome, and eventually tedious and even vulgar, and finally wishing that the economy class-style seats of the Queen E. came equipped with "comfort bags."
The music -- what I could hear of it over the ceaseless belly laughs, guffaws, embarrassed giggles, and applause before a sequence ended -- seemed to fare well, although it is truly dispiriting how little charm and power the directorial team found in this rich, playful score. And when opera isn't about the fat lady singing -- in this case the fat man and he does so whilst playing with a rubber duck and jiggling about in his underpants -- be sure you're gonna get something else, indeed, and get it good and hard.
The sets and costumes from The Santa Fe Opera are stylish and attractive, with the Algiers of Rossini's fantasy effortlessly conveyed to the 1930s. This works well even if at times the characters look as if they had wandered straight off the set of The English Patient.
The orchestra plays with finesse, and it shone exquisitely in the sprightly overture (mercifully played with curtain down), while the chorus, never better, delivered a polished vocal and dramatic performance.
Sandra Piques Eddy's Isabella was a toothsome confection that stopped just short of the wondrous: a radiant stage presence, she has a plush mezzo voice and used it to great effect particularly in her arias "Per lui che adoro" and "Pensa alla' patria." She was ably matched by John Tessier, surely one of the most accomplished and winning tenori di grazia around. He obviously downs bel canto ornamentation with breakfast.
Randall Jakobsh was, to my taste, way, way over the top. His comic sense of Mustaphà, appropriate to an episode of the TV show Family Guy, got in the way of vocal prowess, and he wrestled the music to the ground again and again. Not lacking in vocal heft, his clowning was -- a matter of taste again -- either juicily naughty or plain awful. Rossini deserved more respect, subtlety, and vocal agility.
The secondary roles were well taken, proof of the ever-upward ambitions of this company on the go: Sookhyung Park made a fine Elvira, her lovely voice soaring, and Hugh Russell's Taddeo was knowingly crafted and intelligently sung (if somewhat over-played). In the roles of Haly and Zulma, Brian McIntosh and Barbara Towell, respectively, made their mark, acting well and singing with real commitment.
Maestro Robert Wood in the pit caressed out a performance that sparkled. Finely etched details abounded, and sensitivity to the vocal line was never lacking. This orchestra, now matured into a fine instrument, delivered again and again, and one refuge from the stage nonsense -- oops, business -- was simply to close one's eyes and listen.
I left the theatre fervently wishing that the production team had listened as intently: Rossini's libretto surely is frothiness incarnate, without the ghost of an idea, and there's a lot of bubbly good fun to be had in the music, one of endless and effervescent melody and invention.
But this opera, happily becoming part of the standard repertoire in the Rossini revival now well and truly underway thanks to Cecilia Bartoli and Juan Diego Flórez, is considerably more than a bag of pretty obvious and -- frankly put -- pretty cheap tricks. Where this should have soared, along with that air-balloon that wafts Isabella and Lindoro to Italy, it was all gas or was it too earthbound?
© 2008 J H Stape