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Sandra Piques Eddy is Isabella [Photo by Chris McKenzie courtesy of Boston Midsummer Opera]
28 Jul 2011

Boston Midsummer Opera’s Italian Girl in Algiers

This year’s venture for the annual Boston Midsummer Opera is an elegant reading of Rossini’s fizzy masterpiece of 1813, l’Italiana in Algeri.

Gioacchino Rossini: The Italian Girl in Algiers (L’Italiana in Algeri)

Isabella: Sandra Piques Eddy; Lindoro: Bradley Williams; Taddeo: David Kravitz; Mustafa: Eric Downs; Elvira: Sara Jakubiak; Zulman: Julia Mintzer; Ali: David Lara. Vocal Quartet/Chorus: Sean Lair, Michael Kuhn, Stephen Humeston, Joshua Taylor. Music Director and Conductor: Susan Davenny Wyner; Stage Director: Drew Minter; Scenic Designer: Stephen Dobay. Tsai Performance Center, Boston, 27, 29, 31 July 2011.

Above: Sandra Piques Eddy as Isabella

All photos by Chris McKenzie courtesy of Boston Midsummer Opera

 

Undertaken in response to a desperate plea from the Teatro San Benedetto in Venice to fill a gap in the spring schedule, Rossini’s opera was completed in an astonishing twenty-seven days. It was the work of a young man — it could be argued that all of Rossini’s operas are the works of a young man, since he retired from the theater at thirty-eight — but by no means an inexperienced one: La scala di seta, La pietra del paragone, and Tancredi were already behind him. The impress of Mozart’s most ebullient moments is still heavy on the very young Rossini, but this is a kind of Mozart in constant and barely controlled agitation: not for Rossini the long lyrical lines of his friend in later life, Vincenzo Bellini. The libretto, which had already been set by Luigi Mosca just a few years earlier, is a farcical continuation of the European fascination with Turkish, and more broadly Middle Eastern, themes and ideas: the dauntless Isabella, fortuitously shipwrecked in Algiers, chances upon her lost lover, now enslaved, and contrives to free herself and him, while making a fool of the Bey Mustafa.

Director Minter and designer Dobay have resituated the piece in the present day, in a place more or less like the U.A. E. (so much for Algiers!), which has made an uneasy compromise with Western culture — the Bey and his wives in more or less traditionally Arab garb, while the Bey’s henchmen wear shirts and trousers. The dazzling single set suggested the jewel-toned interiors of a palace, with easy access to a stylized dock, while cinnamon-colored silhouettes suggested the towers of the city beyond and around the action; it made the best of the stage, urging the cast forward toward the audience. It seems to have been, if one reads the notes, the intention of both the music director and the stage director to bring an undercurrent of real danger to the proceedings (Barbary pirates! Sexism!), but happily this ambition had faded out within half an hour. For all that we know about Rossini’s flexibility in supplying new arias for new cities or singers, his dramaturgy at its best proceeds with ironclad determination: Rossini’s unstoppable music and the dramatic flow it illustrates tell us insistently that this is a farce, not a melodrama. There is no way to confuse Italiana with The Death of Klinghoffer. Mustafa is not menacing: he’s infantile; he’s been declawed by the end of the first act.

As the richly characterized Isabella, the fourth of the flexible roles for the low-meezo voice Rossini cherished (but not the last: Rosina and Angelina were to follow) Eddy sang with notable accuracy, and her remarkable beauty was underscored by her comic flair. Downs must be one of the younger and better-looking Mustafas on record. There was a certain active tone in his voice which, while a benefit to lyrical singing, slightly blurred some of his passage-work. As the hapless Lindoro, Williams sang well, very much in the manner of the Irish tenor, with that high and forward placement. Kravitz’s Taddeo was an agreeable goof, while Jakubiak, in the rather thankless role of the rejected wife, acquitted herself well, despite passing pitch inaccuracies in the first act. BMO reduced Rossini’s male double-chorus to four voices — the Bey’s muscle — which made sense dramaturgically, but effectively reduced the piece to a chamber opera. Wyner’s orchestra played with a clean accuracy, although the singers were occasionally tempted to get ahead of her.

ItalianG-4.gif(L-R) Sandra Piques Eddy as Isabella, Sara Jakubiak as Elvira, and Eric Downs as Mustafa

One of the challenges of Angelo Anelli’s quite serviceable libretto is the nature of Isabella’s relationship with the men in her life. Who is Taddeo (Kravitz) — cast-off lover? Failed suitor? Is he an old man, a pantalone, or just a luckless young or middle-aged one? One has the notion that Anelli never quite decided, and the age-old uncertainty hovers over this production as it does over most. How can Lindoro (Williams), passive in his captivity while awaiting his Isabella, seem more than effete? It is remarkably difficult to bring Lindoro into focus, and almost impossible, dramaturgically, to bring them into focus together. The comedy is almost reducible to a contest of wills between the spirited Isabella and the schoolyard-bully Mustafa. As the conductor’s notes rightly point out, it is a specimen also of the then-popular “rescue” opera. She fails to mention, however, its striking resemblance to the greatest “rescue” opera, which similarly features a surprising female rescuer: Fidelio, the first version of which predated Italiana by eight years, and the final version of which followed it by only a year. These operas, like the contemporary writings of Madame de Stael and Mary Wollstonecraft, ask: what is the capacity of a woman? In Rossini’s works, the woman steadily loses power, until she is a sinner (Semiramide), and then hardly more than a cipher (Comte Ory; Guillaume Tell).

IGIA-8.gif(L-R) Bradley Williams as Lindoro, Eric Downs as Mustafa, and David Kravitz as Taddeo

We have little trouble now in agreeing with the very young Rossini on the joys of seeing a woman exert all the force of her beauty and wit — but what of the mode alla Turca? Minter’s version, which connects the dots between the Turkish threat circa 1800 and today’s oil magnates with shady “shipping” practices, hardly diminishes the cultural chauvinism of the original, and concludes in the same place. It is just more fun, according to Anelli and Rossini, to be Italian than anything else, and Isabella and her friends want nothing better than to be back home, where women are free; Minter’s production, which concludes with the Bey’s thugs converted to pseudo-Italian clothing (to the point of waving little Italian flags), ready to expatriate, and the Bey himself, as well as his wife, in semi-Western garb, tacitly agrees with them, cultural anxiety notwithstanding. Still, Boston Midsummer Opera delivers a Rossini production of great verve and clarity — a real summer pleasure.

Graham Christian

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