There came a point during Tuesday’s performance of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” at the Metropolitan Opera when I vowed I would stop laughing at the sophomoric spectacle in front of me.
I think it was when the chorus of masked, rubber-bellied eunuchs started whipping a row of twerking harem girls, in sync with the music. I had already cringed at the extravagant black-tufted wigs that covered the chest and back of the bass Ildar Abdrazakov in a scene showing his character, the Algerian bey Mustafà, in his bath. And I had stared, with alarmed bemusement, at Mr. Abdrazakov’s soft-shoeing, air-guitar-playing, floor-pounding performance, which seemed to grow more unhinged as the evening wore on.
But my resolution came to naught. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1973 staging of this battle of the sexes, framed by Rossini and his librettist as an abduction drama, may be the silliest and most stereotype-laden production in the Met’s repertory. But it’s still very funny — irresistibly so, as I found out.
This revival is conducted by James Levine, making his first appearance in his new role as music director emeritus. He conducted this effervescent music with a steady hand, sure pacing and an eye for instances of opulent instrumental color, which are tucked in among the otherwise briskly efficient score.
The opera’s female lead is Isabella, a feisty Italian captive who uses charm, wit and mountains of pasta to spring free her lover, Lindoro, who was taken into slavery some months earlier. The vocally challenging Isabella — requiring nimble coloratura and a certain earthiness in the form of a grounded low register — had been planned for the American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong. But illness forced her to withdraw, leaving the Italian mezzo Marianna Pizzolato to take over, in her Met debut.
The froufrou production, with its over-the-top performances, proved a fine foil for Ms. Pizzolato’s matronly, no-nonsense presence and her dark-toned, coolly assured singing and crystal-clear diction. Marshaling all the matter-of-fact bossiness of an Italian mama, she disarmed the vainglorious Mustafà.
René Barbera, also in his first Met appearance, brought a light, urbane tenor to the role of Lindoro, the somewhat colorless object of Isabella’s affections and intrigue. The suave baritone Nicola Alaimo was almost miscast as the hapless Taddeo, singing with elegance and richness of tone.
The sunny-voiced soprano Ying Fang perfectly inhabited the part of Elvira, Mustafà’s jilted, ditsy wife. The vibrant Canadian-Tunisian mezzo Rihab Chaieb, as Elvira’s slave, Zulma, and the solid baritone Dwayne Croft, as the put-upon pirate captain Haly, offered strong support.
But the evening belonged, for better or worse, to Mr. Abdrazakov. His eye-rolling, pantomiming performance sometimes grew exhausting, but vocally, he remained focused and resonant in every angle and turn of the sometimes preposterous coloratura passages Rossini assigned to him.
At the end of the opera, his character collapses into gluttonous silence. When Mustafà realizes that in the meantime, the Italians have made their escape, there is little left for him to do except throw fistfuls of spaghetti after them.
Opera Review: Rossini’s ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’ at the Metropolitan Opera
This second week of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2016-2017 season brings the welcome returns of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” (“The Italian Girl in Algiers”) and James Levine. A presence for most of the 50 years that the Met has been at Lincoln Center, Music Director Emeritus Levine was rapturously cheered by the near-capacity audience. In addition to conducting the silly romantic comedy, he oversaw the impressive debuts of mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato as Isabella, the titular Italian Girl, and American tenor René Barbera as her true love Lindoro.
Rossini depicts the ensuing chaos in innovative ways.
Returning to the repertory after a 12-year absence, the 1973 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production doesn’t look dated. Ponnelle (1932-1988), an innovative director/designer, never shied from questioning content. Perhaps if the opera was “The French Girl in Algiers,” he would have. As Rossini wrote the opera in 1813, “L’Italiana” takes place two decades before the French Occupation of Algeria. Therefore, the dreamy, pastel painted sets and costumes copied from illustrations by nineteenth-century adventurers and fairy tale illustrators are appropriate. Still, Rossini did make a political statement about Italian unification, which Isabella expresses in “Pensa alla patria” (“Think of your homeland”), front and center.
Isabella’s declaration comes after a wild ordeal. She, along with the love-struck Taddeo (baritone Nicola Alaimo), are captured after their ship is wrecked on the orders of the Bey Mustafà (bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov). Mustafà isn’t technically interested in treasure, but wants an Italian wife to add to his harem, which includes the loyal Elvira (soprano Ying Fang). His plan to marry off Elvira to Lindoro (Barbera), another Italian in captivity, so he can marry Isabella is easier to decree than implement…Lindoro is Isabella’s long-lost fiancé!
Rossini depicts the ensuing chaos in innovative ways. Unlike other Romantic-era composers, his score is never pseudo-Oriental. The Act 1 finale has each of the main characters expressing their confusion by mimicking clocks ticking. Lindoro and Taddeo finally dupe Mustafà by initiating him into the Order of Pappatachi, requiring him to “See and not see” – foreshadowing Italian Futurism by a century.
The cast made both excellent singing and stage partners. Marianna Pizzolato’s Isabella is the smartest, most mature character. Many of the musical motifs in the “Overture” are sung by Isabella, which Pizzolato did splendidly. Being her actual “slave,” René Barbera instinctively deferred to her by combining a strong balance of physical comedy, choreography, and the singing of two long arias. (Unfortunately, a cellphone went off during the first one.) Even baritone Dwayne Croft, a normally serious artist, let loose as Haly the pirate captain, reveling in chasing Taddeo back and across the stage and being tricked by servants into washing the floor.
The Italian Girl is in the title, but Mustafà is the catalyst. Ildar Abdrazakov made sure everyone had a good time at his expense. The only things the Bey is good at is selecting his wardrobe (Doctor Who would envy his fez), dancing, and, of course, singing. Abdrazakov never stood still and didn’t sacrifice his resonant voice doing so. A neat acoustics test for aspiring bass-baritones would be if they can yell “Pappatachi,” and then measure it against Abdrazakov’s booming delivery.
Running Time: 3 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.
Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” runs through October 29, 2016 at the Metropolitan Opera. For more information and tickets, click here.