La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Rossini's "Italian Girl in Algiers" Takes Flight in Austin, Texas

I doubt that Gioachino Rossini had airplanes and hot-air balloons in mind when he wrote his comic opera L’Italiana in Algeri in 1813 - but why not? There is so much craziness in the opera as written, that a little more just adds to the fun. And there was plenty of fun in the Austin Lyric Opera (ALO) production that took to the stage at the Long Center last week.
The Austin Lyric Opera is a regional company with a modest budget, struggling every month to keep its head above water; yet it consistently manages to mount one imaginative and entertaining production after another.
General Director Kevin Patterson sure knows how to pick them. The company, which celebrates its 25thanniversary next season, fully deserves not only the support of the local community, but in my opinion, national recognition as well.
I have been attending ALO performances for about six years now, and I have come to know that when I see Richard Buckley in the pit, the music is in good hands. That was certainly the case with this production. A few more stands of violins from the Austin Symphony might have given him a fuller sound, but throughout the evening the playing was audibly bubbly and charming. Piccolo player Beverly Frittelli deserves a purple heart for her bravery ‘under fire.’
The delightful “set” for this production of L’Italiana in Algeri, which the ALO borrowed from the Sante Fe Opera, was designed by Robert Innes Hopkins. It resembles a child’s pop-up book, which is closed as the opera opens, and opens over the course of the opera, on different scenes.
As the opera opens - or one ‘turns the page’- up pops a building, part of the palace of the Bey (Turkish for “sultan, lord or ruler”) of Algiers, a scene onto which the various characters in the opera enter the picture in 3D fashion. When the book is closed, it becomes a desert landscape with a starry sky, on which we have a wonderful 1920s biplane in which Isabella arrives from Italy (Act 1), and a hot-air balloon (Act 2) in which she takes her leave at the end of the opera.
All the sets, as well as the costumes (designed by David C. Woolard) are ‘fairy tale’ bright and colourful.
The stars in this production are undoubtedly Sandra Piques Eddy as Isabella and Paolo Pecchioli as the Bey Mustafà; both are gifted singers and accomplished comic actors, and under stage director Herbert Kellner, they rarely missed an opportunity to elicit a laugh.
Eddy delighted Austin audiences several years ago in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and she has returned in even richer voice. She is now vastly experienced – having made numerous appearances at the Met – and is very much at ease with the demands of bel canto.
Pecchioli made a dashing and appropriately foolish Mustafà in his Austin debut, and handled his difficult music with aplomb.
Tenor Javier Abreu sang with an appealing lyric voice, but lacked both ringing high notes and volume.
It goes without saying, that one shouldn’t attempt Rossini without first-rate performers but even with an excellent cast, the operas can become tiresome without a resourceful director. The action, for example, is frequently interrupted as lead singers stand and deliver ‘show-off’ arias.
Kellner is a director who not only has a seemingly endless bag of comic tricks up his sleeve, but he has a sophisticated sense of how to invent bits of business that perfectly match the character of the music. There were times when reactions from the chorus threatened to upstage singers in mid-aria but more often than not these antics added to the fun and kept things moving.
The Act I finale is a brilliant tour-de-force of ensemble noise-making and singing, and on opening night, Buckley’sprestissimo tempo had singers and players alike hanging on for dear life. It was not as tight as it probably will be in later performances but who cares - the sheer joy of the music-making made that a moot point.
For Something More…
Rossini was only 21 when he wrote L’Italiana in Algeri, and it was hugely popular. Italian audiences of the day were reportedly doubled up with laughter watching Algerians and Italians alike behaving like fools.
The content of the opera, however, was actually a satirical treatment of a very serious matter. At the time, Algeria was part of the Ottoman Empire and feared as the home base of the notorious Barbary pirates. These pirates controlled the seas and ranged widely even outside the Mediterranean. Their main business was kidnapping European Christians and selling them into slavery.
Europeans unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked on the Barbary coast of North Africa could expect the same fate, just as Lindoro, Isabella and Taddeo did in Rossini’s opera. Indeed, in this period, wealthy Muslim men kept many wives and concubines as Bey Mustafà aspired to do in the opera.
Nor was this simply an Italian problem. In the early 1800s, there were over 200,000 Americans enslaved in Algiers and the United States fought several wars to try to free them. The terrible era of the Barbary pirates only came to an end when France conquered Algiers in 1830.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."

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