Corrections or additions?
This review by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the July 9, 2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Opera Review: `L’Italiana’
Opera Festival of New Jersey burst into its 20th season
with a sparkling performance of Gioacchino Rossini’s "L’Italiana
in Algeri" on Sunday, June 29. A capable cast with exceptional
vocal capacities and dramatic abilities upheld the musical conceptions
and brisk pacing of conductor Daniel Beckwith. Director Leon Major’s
playful production incorporated provocative anachronisms. And Erhard
Rom’s simple set design, illuminated by Helena Kuukka’s lighting,
evoked the blue of the Mediterranean and implied high temperature
with an ocher building shaded by palm trees. Martha Mann’s costumes
suggested the comic view of Moslems as they were stereotyped in Europe
in the neighborhood of 1800. This production would divest any first-time
operagoer of the idea that opera is deadly serious.
At the very beginning a pantomime on the McCarter stage signals shenanigans.
In silence, a team of three eunuchs in turbans and long, shimmering
pale green cloaks approaches an old-fashioned Victrola, vintage about
1925, and starts it. The music is the "Toreador Song" from
"Carmen." Wrong opera. They try again and the spirited "L’Italiana"
Other harem personnel, including maidens, whose purple pants vibrate
against the orange of their overskirts, appear on stage. The jarring
colors clash in drenching sunlight.
A short and whiny Elvira (Tonna Miller), whose husband, Mustafa, the
Bey of Algiers, wants to give her to his Italian slave, Lindoro (Michael
Colvin), shrilly wails her way onto the stage in the company of a
tall Zulma (Alexis Barthelemy), her servant. Mustafa, a burly Bey
of Algiers (Eduardo Chama), in sunglasses, approaches the women accompanied
by two sunglassed retainers. As Elvira reverently kneels, Mustafa
presents his credentials for irascibility and declaims, "I curse
the arrogance of women."
Mustafa asks Ali — Haly in Italian — (Keith Phares), captain
of his Corsairs, to find him an Italian wife. In the distance we see
the capsizing of a steamship that could not have existed before 1910.
Ali drives on stage in an anachronistic cream-colored sports car.
Isabella (Maria Zifchak), an Italian woman in search of her lost lover,
Lindoro, has been shipwrecked. She is traveling with her admirer Taddeo
(Valeriano Lanchas). Ali plans to present Isabella to the Bey as the
sought-after Italian wife. Taddeo claims to be Isabella’s uncle. Isabella
is sure that she can see her way through any difficulty.
Just before Act I ends, Lindoro and Isabella recognize each other.
Isabella persuades Mustafa not to send away his wife. She also convinces
him to give her Lindoro as a servant.
The action to the end of Act I takes place briskly and introduces
all the characters. The pace slows in Act II. Mustafa names Taddeo
his Grand Kaimakan, or deputy, in the hope that he will encourage
his supposed niece to succumb to his affections. Isabella, with the
help of Lindoro and Taddeo, dupes Mustafa by enrolling him in the
ranks of the so-called Pappatacci, whose alleged principles require
members to eat and be silent. By the end of the opera Lindoro, Isabella,
and other Italians, are on their way back to Italy, extolling Italian
nationality. Mustafa and Elvira are meanwhile reconciled.
Undeterred by the dramatic slackness of Act II, Rossini crafts much
engaging music and thereby presents the director with a huge challenge.
To cut any of the slow-moving scenes would lose a great deal musically.
In this production Major admirably pulls out several
tricks of stagecraft in the attempt to keep the attention of the audience
in Act II. His design of characters shifting levels — dropping
to the floor, falling to their knees, and rising up again — helps
hold the eyes of watchers. He valiantly arranges for singers to weave
back and forth among each other in the best tradition of Broadway.
Hilariously, he has Mustafa, as a newly-inducted member of the Pappatacci,
sing with the abandonment of mindless devotion as he eats enormous
amounts of spaghetti.
As a work of bel canto, "L’Italiana" overflows with vocal
fireworks, executed with particular skill by the leading male singers.
From the moment he entered Eduardo Chama used the heft of his large
clear voice to establish Mustafa as a character whose inertia is his
worst enemy. In the elaborate display following Lindoro’s entering
aria "Languir per una bella," lamenting the loss of his beloved,
Michael Colvin sang with silken suppleness, accuracy, and grace. Major
enlarges on the vocal qualities of the two by having them perform
their major Act I duet on a bicycle. As they ride and sing, they sometimes
gesture with one hand or stand up on the pedals.
Valeriano Lanchas, performed Ali’s Act Two aria after becoming Mustafa’s
deputy, "Ho un gran peso sulla testa," smoothly and accurately.
The accompanying cello solo was warm and shapely. Jose Melendez’s
reliable harpsichord continuo from the stage quietly supported singers
in recitative portions.
The real star of the opera is Isabella, the spunky Italian woman,
who can handle anything, even a malfunctioning automobile motor. Maria
Zifchak executed all her most demanding vocal challenges with an easy
grace, barreling through the most highly decorated music as if there
was no difficulty. Surprisingly, in bland passages, her intonation
was sometimes not accurate.
In her own way Isabella, almost 200 years ago, is a precursor of the
20th century women’s movement. Assertive and commanding, she takes
charge, and advises the meek Elvira that her subservience dooms her
Just as Rossini seems prescient in creating Isabella, he is also forward
looking when it comes to Italian nationalism. Almost 50 years before
Italian leaders launched the movement for Italian unification, the
Italians in "L’Italiana" wave the flag; Isabella leads the
way. "Think of your country," she says, "and what it means
to be Italian." Director Major stresses the point by dressing
the chorus in red, white, and green, and by swaddling Mustafa in a
red, white and green cummerbund as he is inducted into the Pappatacci.
A constant stream of varied, appealing vocal ensembles, with shifting
personnel, gives musical variety to "L’Italiana in Algeri."
The ensembles range from duets to septets. Rossini wrote the piece
in 27 days, at the age of 21. It received its first performance in
1813. ts Opera Festival of New Jersey’s production of "L’Italiana
in Algeri" is a tribute to its durability.
— Elaine Strauss
McCarter Theater, 609-919-0199. $25 to $90. July 11, 8
p.m., Tuesday, July 15, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, July 17, 7:30 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.