|Patrick Carfizzi (Taddeo), Daniela Mack (Isabella), Scott Conner (Mustafa), Stacey Geyer (Elvira), Suzanne Hendrix (Zulma), Jack Swanson (Lindoro)...Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera|
It was difficult to tell who was having more fun at the Santa Fe Opera last night at a riotous performance of Rossini's 1813 laugh riot L'Italiana in Algeri. The cast sparkled with glee and the audience roared with laughter. The original production by Edward Hastings premiered in 2002; we were there and we remember best the part in which Isabella arrives in Algeria by bi-plane!
We doubt that Rossini could have foreseen the Wright Brothers' invention so we will assume that this production has been advanced from the 19th c. a full century into the future. That a forceful female character was invented by Rossini in the early 19th c. is rather remarkable. Her setting an example for the dependent and lovelorn Elvira has resonance for us in the 21st c.
The story concerns this independent Italian woman who has gone searching for her missing beloved Lindoro; he had been captured by pirates and enslaved by the lecherous and self-important Sultan Mustafa, a ridiculous character whose arrogance makes him easy to fool.
Isabelle is accompanied by Taddeo who adores her. She adores him not.
Mustafa is trying to rid himself of his adoring wife Elvira who needs some good mentoring by Isabella. Mustafa has a yen for an Italian woman and Isabella arrives at just the right moment. The opera story involves her plotting to free all the Italian slaves as well as Lindoro. Thus the opera became catnip for the Italians--not only for its memorable melodic score but also for patriotic reasons.
The setting in Algeria, then a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, reminds us of Europe's fascination with all things exotic at that time. Indeed, not too long before, Mozart wrote his Die Entführung aus dem Serail, the theme of which is not too different.
During the overture, tiny bi-planes were "flown" up and down the aisles of the theater. A somewhat larger bi-plane appeared on the set, and when it was time for Isabella and Taddeo to make their entrance, a much larger bi-plane appeared on the stage.
This masterstroke of creativity set the audience to laughing and the laughs wouldn't stop all night long. For our taste, Shawna Lucey's direction was excessive but the audience loved all the gyrations, wriggling, pelvic thrusting, wild gesticulations, and Broadway chorus-style dancing. There was one trick that Ms.Lucey missed. When Isabella and Lindoro take off in a hot-air balloon at the conclusion of the opera, there was a basket but no balloon!
We did love the set design by Robert Innes Hopkins which was well lit by Duane Schuler. There was a flat playing space with palm trees on each side; the floor unfolded upward to reveal Mustafa's palace with its Moorish arches and pillars. It reminded us of those greeting cards that are cleverly constructed to reveal a cut-out when one opens them.
David C. Woolard's costume design was wild and colorful for the Algerian court and suitable for the Europeans in their own fashion. We particularly enjoyed the scene in which Isabella tears down one of the curtains, snatches up some random decorations, goes behind a screen, and emerges in a stylish form-fitting costume.
The singing was excellent all around; Rossini's melodies paired with the vowel-dominant Italian language give one a chance to appreciate a singer's gifts--something that doesn't happen for us in contemporary operas in English. The best part of the singing was the work done as an ensemble. The voices blended in happy harmony with each character singing a different vocal line and expressing different emotions.
Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack made a spunky Isabella, using her physical and vocal assets to get three men to do her bidding, making each one believe that he was the object of her desire. Her delivery of "Cruda sorte" was excellent.
Tenor Jack Swanson made a fine handsome Lindoro, one for whom a woman might go out searching. He was particularly admirable in his duets. Today's audience seems to love "patter songs" as much as the audience of two centuries ago; Mr. Swanson's rapid fire delivery was impressive.
Bass Scott Conner played the part of Mustafa to the hilt. His booming voice and imposing figure perfectly set off the silly nature of his actions. It is wonderful to hear that much flexibility in a large low voice.
As his rejected wife Elvira, Apprentice Singer Stacey Geyer lent her splendid soprano to the creation of a character a normal man would be foolish to abandon; but we did say that Mustafa was foolish.
Mezzo-soprano Suzanne Hendrix was excellent in the role of Zulma, Elvira's slave and confidant. She too showed a lot of spunk.
Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi was just about perfect in the role of Taddeo and succeeded in earning our sympathy for his unrequited love. He gets passed off as Isabella's uncle and avoids impalement by agreeing to join the court.
Baritone Craig Verm was humorously menacing as Haly, Mustafa's chief pirate and scourge of the slaves.
The chorus of Apprentice Singers served as slaves and pirates and eunuchs. We always want to thank Susanne Sheston since the chorus is always so well schooled in perfect diction. And all of them seem effective in whatever parts they are asked to play.
Last, but definitely not least, Rossini's music is a constant delight. Corrado Rovaris' baton led the Santa Fe Orchestra in a highly spirited and swiftly moving reading of the score. From the piping of the piccolo to the "Rossini Crescendo", he made every moment count.
Another triumph for the Santa Fe Opera!
(c) meche kroop