|Elvira and Mustafà's Harem in Utopia Opera's L'Italiana in Algeri
Stage Director and Conductor William Remmers had a radical concept for Rossini's first attempt at comedy--his 1813 L'Italiana in Algeri. He achieved consistency within this concept, that of emphasizing the terrorism and violence, but paid the price of sacrificing the comedy. In his version, Mustafà is not the corpulent buffone he was meant to be but a lean, mean and violent military dictator. When Angelo Anelli wrote the libretto, all Europe was fascinated by all things Turkish, which meant the Ottoman Empire, actually already in decline. Algeria at that time was part of the Empire, hence the title.
But updating the opera to the 20th c. brought it perilously close to our own time and the military costumes and assault rifles became an uncomfortable reminder of the Age of Terrorism, making laughter difficult. This Bey was not a buffoon; the portrayal made it difficult to accept his being so easily tricked by the wily Isabella.
Sung by the radiant mezzo Caroline Tye, Isabella is emblematic of the modern woman and her feminine wiles contrasted beautifully with the submissive nature of Mustafà's rejected wife Elvira, sung by sparkling soprano Patricia Vital and her handmaiden Zulma, winningly sung by mezzo-soprano Kristin Roney.
All three women sang superbly with excellent diction and enviable control of the embellishments. Their skill at bel canto singing was impressive and made the evening a worthwhile one. We loved the way Ms. Tye sang "Cruda sorte....Amor tiranno" and "Per lui che adoro", which we haven't enjoyed so much since Stephanie Blythe sang it in Santa Fe a dozen years ago!
One male role stood out as well, that of Taddeo, Isabella's traveling companion. Jia-jun Hong exhibited admirable comedic skills as well as a fine voice which he used well. Still very young (perhaps as young as Rossini was when he composed this dramma giocoso) he is a talent to watch.
We wish we could have enjoyed the other male leads as well. Bass Duncan Hartman sang reasonably well in spite of a vocal indisposition but seemed cast to fulfill Mr. Remmers' concept. He just didn't match the ridiculous figure we wanted to see.
Tenor Chad Cygan neither looked like a romantic hero that the desirable Isabella would have gone searching for nor did he have the vocal chops for the role. He handled the rapid-fire patter quite well and most of the recitativi but the upper half of his register was uncomfortably and unattractively strained. This is regrettable since Rossini's melodies are so enchanting.
Roman Laba made a fine captain of the army, wearing a red fez. Eric Lamp and Victor Ziccardi doubled as soldiers and slaves. They made some fine moves in a little dance. Jordana Rose, Erica Koehring and Winnie Nieh played members of the harem.
The manic energy of the ensembles with which Rossini generally ends each act were quite well done vocally but disturbing dramatically. Act I ended in a virtual bloodbath with characters all attacking each other with guns, knives and robes. When Act II began, all the characters wore bloody bandages, braces and crutches. EWWW! Lindoro looked like Quasimodo.
The 17 member orchestra played well for the most part with occasional lapses of intonation. We loved the pizzicato opening of the exciting overture after which the melody gets tossed around by the winds. Samuel Marques played some fine solos on the clarinet and Susan Morton was superb on the harpsichord. Mr. Remmers conducted with his customary gusto.
With audience-selected operas and a minuscule budget, it is amazing what Mr. Remmers can pull together. There was, as usual, no set; costumes probably were assembled from the singers' very own closets.
The feisty Utopia Opera has a most unusual double bill coming up in March. Watch for it! You may wish to vote online for next year's operas. Participate!
© meche kroop