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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"

overture sounds.

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

L’Italiana in Algeri, Opera Festival of New Jersey,

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.

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