06 Jun 2016

L’italiana in Algeri, Garsington Opera

George Souglides’ set for Will Tuckett’s new production of Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri at Garsington would surely have delighted Liberace.

Its two sweeping white staircases would perfectly support a 16-foot-long sequin-lined fox cape, allowing the late ‘Mr Showmanship’ to make a magnificently grandiose entrance.

These particular stairways, however, adorn the Bey of Algiers’ palace. One curves gracefully, edged with an ornate gilt balustrade and supported by burnished, spiralling columns; its arch frames dignified red velvet ottomans and a small circular fountain which is suggestive of the bath chambers of the harem. The other undulates like an air-borne flying-carpet, its ridges later to be illuminated in contrasting colours, its wave-like ripples breaking onto a feather bed of cushions. The juxtaposition of acute realist detail and fantastical motif embodies the essential, and dynamic, duality of Tuckett’s production of an opera which is itself founded on oppositions: men versus women, East versus West, despotism versus freedom.

With the sombre black floor and back-flat showcasing the vivid complementary colours of the scheme, Souglides’ design is an imaginative and impeccable surround for Tuckett’s staged tableaux. And the latter are wonderfully lit by Giuseppe di Iorio, who recreates in turn the Orient’s exotic gleam, the stark brightness of Fellini, and the gaudy glitz of Vegas — as when a silhouette of on Ottoman arch blazes with flashing, dancing strobes. There are many lovely set pieces, not least when the three suitors listen to Isabella’s declaration of love, each man secreted beneath the stairway, assuming that her words are intended for him alone.

Garsington Opera L'italiana in Algeri 2016 Ezgi Kutlu (Isabella)credit Johan Persson .pngEzgi Kutlu as Isabella

But, problems arise when it comes to stage movement: the staircases occupy the whole stage space, and while it’s possible for harem dancers to pirouette in the undulating scoop at the foot of the ‘stair-carpet’, and for supernumeraries and slaves to slide around the decorative pillars, there’s not much room for any ‘meaningful’ choreography, other than a few skips and marches as signalled by Rossini’s score. Even the well-orchestrated chaos of the composer’s brilliant first act Finale, with its nonsense text — ‘ding dong’, ‘caw caw’ — clanging in the characters’ heads, culminates with the protagonists slumped on ottomans, covering their ears to shield them from the cacophony.

While this means that there is little distracting business during the big arias, the ensembles do suffer. Once the principals are assembled in position, on the inclines and in the dips, there is little chance of them moving. But, perhaps this is indicative of the static nature of Rossini’s opera. After all, though the eponymous ‘Italian Girl’, Isabella, arrives in town and satisfies the self-absorbed, self-indulgent Sultan’s desire for a change of romantic scene, nothing and no one really changes. Isabella rules the roost: she liberates her enslaved lover, toys with the enraptured Taddeo and with the toy-boy Turk, and instructs the harem in feminine wiles, but the characters don’t develop. It’s a watered down Die Entführung aus dem Serail: for in Mozart’s opera Konstanza, imprisoned by Pasha Selim, truly suffers, while Belmonte seeks to rescue her from an Oriental potentate who is aided by a genuinely rage-ridden Osmin, and all undergo both quest and discovery.

Tuckett’s Act 2 slides into caricature and stereotype. Perhaps this is inevitable in an opera that trades in racism and misogyny — though we forgive the era its foibles. And, Souglides makes the most of the possibilities offered by the glass sides of the Wormsley Pavilion, as we drift into night and the set merges with the encroaching darkness without. The sliding back panels which in Act 1 reveal the arrival of Isabella and her shipwrecked Italian entourage — upon a rocky promontory beneath a burning red sunset — now open on a cobalt sky and crescent moon. Pendant antique souk lamps throw suggestive shadows as they rise and fall.

If there is less to engage us dramatically in Act 2, then this is probably Rossini’s fault. But, the composer does provide two elaborate ceremonies — or phony rituals — and they are inventively presented by Tuckett. The first is the appointment of Taddeo as Kaimakan, in which he accepts the title, uncomfortable gold-and-emerald khelat and outsize turban as a better alternative than the executioner’s scythe. The second is the according of the pseudo-rank of ‘Pappataci’ to Mustafà.

In both instances, Angelo Anelli’s libretto pays debt to Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670) which enacts a Turkish ceremony (Act 4 Scene 5) in which the foppish Monsieur Jourdain is ennobled to Mamamouchi; and, both of Rossini’s set pieces are expertly choreographed by Tuckett and visually resplendent. While Kaimakan is still the title of a governor of a provincial district in Turkey, ‘The Order of the Pappataci’ — though perhaps a nod to the secret clubs in vogue in Venice in the early 19th century, where Rossini’s opera was premiered — is entirely fictitious. ‘Pappataci’ literally means ‘eat your food and shut up’, a humiliating command to the cuckold. Tuckett wittily connects ‘Mama’ with ‘Papa’ and comes up with ‘Sugar Daddy’: an apt sideways step given that Mustafà’s initiation feast is the opportunity for Isabella to manoeuvre her escape with the Italian entourage. So, having sworn to ‘see and not see ... to hear and not hear,’ and ‘to let people do and say what they like’, Mustafà stuffs himself with calorific candied confections — served up by a bevy of chefs sporting candyfloss-pink toques — while the Italian lovers embrace and flee.

The costumes too articulate the divide between East and West, real and surreal. We have authentic odalisques’ robes in magenta, plum and crimson; slaves and guards whose cummerbunds — red on white, green on blue — splash an abundance of rich colours. Mustafà swaps a tunic of Oxford blue and silver for a caftan of crimson and gold, and ends up draped in a Barbie-pink dressing gown as ‘Sugar Daddy’, trading his authoritative sarik turban for a towering black fez.

But, the Italians — echoing the patriotic sentiments expressed by the heroine — are attired in the fashions of Sophie Loren’s 1950s, supplemented by a few Breton tops and Guantanamo-orange life-jackets to indicate their sea-born arrival in Algiers.

Everything revolves around Isabella, the guileful femme who triumphs over male presumption, vanity and misogyny. Essentially this in an opera about three men who are in love with a single woman: the latter achieves her ends through her erotic appeal, and with economy of effort and efficiency of outcome. And, Ezgi Kutlu has the radiance and aura to lead from the front. Her mezzo-soprano has plenty of ebullience and personality, and she has a wide vocal range, incredibly strong at the bottom — Isabella is all warm mezzo seduction rather than glinting soprano dazzle — which suggests a self-confidence and sensuality born of experience. Kutlu was sincere of sentiment in her Act 1 opener, ‘Cruda sorte’, and a wily strategist elsewhere, resourcefully exploiting her knowledge of men to trick and elude her would-be master. She exhibited a bright, forward tone in the ensembles, balancing the occasional touch of contralto smokiness. This sassy lass combined debonair composure with comic flair.

Mary Bevan was a crystal-toned Elvira, and her voice rose beautifully aloft during the ensembles. However, the role of the Bey’s abused, docile and devoted wife is an unsympathetic one to modern audiences, and although Bevan exchanged her funereal black frock for an olive-green get-up we were not convinced she had really learned the lessons imparted by Isabella. Her attendant, Zulma, was the vivacious and vibrant Katie Bray.

Quirijn de Lang’s Mustafà Bey of Algiers is an unstable blend of fierce, tyrannical misogyny and foolish infatuation. He might complain that Elvira’s pleas are bursting his ear drums but he is insensitive to the fooleries being exercised around him. His despotism is of a caricatured nature: as he ogles Isabella, the enslaver turned enslaved, so his court bend and bow in imitation of their master’s infatuated obeisance. De Lang’s baritone does have a beautiful baritonal sheen, but he struggled to meet the role’s demands for agility and accuracy and there’s quite a lot of comic woofery in place of genuine vocal acting.

Luciana Botehlo is an unassuming Lindoro, inclined to let his lady lead the way. But, if Botehlo’s tenor is relatively light and characterless, then so are Rossini’s lines for the ‘hero’, and the tenor negotiated the twists and twirls, producing a smooth legato in his Act 1 cavatina, ‘Languir per una bella’ and subsequently relaxing into a suave, debonair idiom.

Isabella’s third suitor, the hapless Taddeo, was neatly characterised by Riccardo Novaro — Garsington were fortunate to be able to call upon his services in the indisposition of Geoffrey Dolton. Torn between impalement and life as a ‘gooseberry’, this Taddeo was vociferous yet self-aware in his arguments with Isabella, exhibiting a natural comic flair and creating sympathy for a character who can seem merely tedious.

Completing the male principals was Božidar Smiljanić’ as Haly, who served the Bey with judicious deference and genuflection. The baritone’s Act 2 aria, ‘Le femmine d’Italia’, was far more assured and imposing than we might expect from a singer who is just completing his postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music.

Rossini’s chorus are barely involved in the action but, directed by Susanna Stranders, they deployed themselves neatly, though occasionally the stage-to-pit synchronisation was less than secure.

David Parry, conducting his 12th Rossini production for Glyndebourne, drew tight discipline from the Garsington instrumentalists. The tautness of the pianissimos was striking, and the overture (the opera’s best music) was enlivened by surprising sforzandos. The woodwind relished their concertante roles in the drama and flute, oboe, bassoon and horn each enhanced the dramatic characterisation.

Rossini declared, ‘As for love, I consider it the prima donna assoluta, a goddess who ravishes the brain with her cavatinas, making the ear drunk and delighting the heart. Eating, loving, singing and digesting are the four acts of a comic opera called life that bursts like the bubbles in a bottle of champagne. Anyone who allows it to seep away without having enjoyed it first is a complete and utter fool.’ La Dolce Vita indeed … which this production set out to promote via Isabella’s embodiment of the ‘Eternal Feminine’.

But, the opera also has a ‘revolutionary’ slant, which was granted a mere glance in the final bars, when di Iorio’s lighting cast a patriotic red-white-green pattern up the floating stairway. For in her last aria, ‘Pensa alla patria’, Isabella urges the enslaved to lead a renaissance of boldness and bravery — a risorgimenti trope complemented by her attempt to fire Lindoro’s courage, ‘think of our fatherland’, and contrasted by the alcoholic idiocies if those left behind in the seraglio. In tying up the dramatic threads, Tuckett did not quite overcome Rossini’s vulgar stereotypes of the Orient.

But, let’s return to the opera’s more central questions. While Mustafà quietly asks his wife for forgiveness (‘Mi perdona’), do the Orientals really learn from the Europeans? Does despotism give way to more enlightened government? Though Isabella dishes out sweetly domestic admonitions — ‘Colla sposa sia gentile’ (Be nice to your wife) and ‘E si cara’ (She’s so dear) — and announces that she intends to change such the ‘barbarous’ marital customs — ‘Don’t act like a sheep,’ she instructs Elvira, ‘for if you do the wolf will eat you up. In my country it’s the wives who whip our husbands into shape’ — this production does not propose that Rossini's imaginary harem is on its way to Western domesticity.

The final visual image — a passing cruise liner picks up the homesick Italians — suggests that while the slaves are liberated from their chains, and set forth for the ‘sweet life’, the Bey is just waiting for another Italian girl to come sailing by.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Isabella — Ezgi Kutlu, Lindoro — Luciano Botelho, Mustafà — Quirijn de Lang, Taddeo — Riccardo Novaro, Elvira — Mary Bevan, Zulma — Katie Bray, Haly — Božidar Smiljanić; Conductor — David Parry, Director — Will Tuckett, Designer — George Souglides, Lighting Designer — Giuseppe di Iorio, Garsington Opera Orchestra & Chorus.