Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Rossini flags up the power of women

CONSIDERED one of Rossini’s wildest and craziest comic operas, L’Italiana in Algeri was written and first

CONSIDERED one of Rossini’s wildest and craziest comic operas, L’Italiana in Algeri was written and first performed in Venice in 1813 when the composer was just 21 years old.

It was an immediate success. The music, so typical of the Rossini style, is full of energy, light and sparkling melodies, and joie de vivre.

It was the magnificent set that first drew me in, with its giant, gleaming white “flying carpet” staircase, ornate gilt decorations and Moorish cut-out doorway all against a black background.

With the low evening sun splashing light on to the stage of the splendid Garsington Opera auditorium, we could have been in a palace in North Africa. Enchanting.

Generously supported by Lord and Lady Laidlaw, the production was directed by Will Tuckett and performed in the original Italian by the cast of seven singers plus male chorus and silent female “harem” of dancers.

The overture set the scene. A whispering opening in the strings punctuated by sudden outbursts from the entire orchestra prepared us for the comic effects of the writing to come.

The Garsington Opera Orchestra conducted by David Parry took the melodies at a pace and there was some tight woodwind playing, particularly by the piccolo.

L’Italiana in Algeri is a cross-cultural tale of women’s hold over men. It is the story of the deception of Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers.

Bored of his wife Elvira, he hatches a plan to find her a new husband, leaving him free to marry again. The beautiful Isabella, an Italian girl recently shipwrecked, is identified as a good match. However Mustafa doesn’t reckon on her smart and devious ways, and is subjected to much humiliation by Isabella and all of his household as she escapes with Lindoro, her Italian lover.

The music is demanding, the vocal writing virtuosic, full of energy, vocal runs, trills and leaps.

Luciano Botelho’s Lindoro gave us some impassioned singing in act one, coping well with the ornamentation if slightly pushed on the extremes of vocal range.

Riccardo Novarro was a commanding presence as Taddeo, and comically brilliant. Mary Bevan’s Elvira was rhythmically precise and crystal clear throughout.

But it was Turkish mezzo-soprano Ezgi Kutlu’s Isabella who stole the show with her velvety tones and her flawless coloratura. Alighting from her shipwreck, hips swinging seductively in heels and European dress, she was the model of modern womanly wiles providing a marked contrast to the robes and fezzes of Algeria.

The production could still do with some tightening. The orchestral playing was excellent but the ensemble between singers and orchestra was occasionally suspect. The great climax at the end of act one was thrilling, with the tension building in the music and maximum confusion on stage. In the very fast passages, however, despite some brilliant string playing in the orchestra, there were some problems with ensemble and at times this rocked the rhythmic control.

Costume and props deserve a special mention. The Pappataci scene was visually splendid. The unwitting Mustafa is bestowed the Italian honour of “sugar daddy”. Bamboozled, he becomes a pantomime character in sequinned robe and tall headdress, eating his way through plate after plate of cakes piled high. The comic acting was excellent here and there was some good strong singing from the male chorus.

If you are lucky enough to find tickets to this production, and there are eight more performances until July 10, you will be delighted at the surprise gesture to the Italian nation at the very end.

The “magic” flying carpet illuminates in the colours of the Italian flag as the lines in the libretto spell out the moral of the tale: “It took an Italian girl to show that women rule the roost!”

Review: Mandy Beard

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