Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Opera Review: The Italian Girl in Algiers
This is a jewel of an opera. It is light and bubbly, absolutely silly, with music that soars, canters, cavorts, and sparkles.
The curtain has come down on the 52 year stint of the Dallas Opera at the Fair Park Music Hall. This fall they move in to the nearly complete Winspear Opera House. For their last production at this venue the company decided to resuscitate the seldom performed The Italian Girl in Algiers by Gioachino Rossini. I chose to go on closing night because of the importance of this final performance. Suffice to say, the Dallas Opera has left their “old” digs triumphantly.
Why is the Italian Girl not performed more often? This is a jewel of an opera. It is light and bubbly, absolutely silly, with music that soars, canters, cavorts, and sparkles. The plot is so absurd, mindless, and twisted that it serves merely as a device for exceedingly funny encounters and scenes, pausing long enough to give us sensational arias and songs. I had never run across this opera before, but in my estimation it firmly belongs in the category of the great comedic opera’s such as Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Johan Strauss’ Die Fliedermaus, and Lehar’s The Merry Widow. The music traipses through a myriad of delightful musical landscapes representative of the youthful composer – he was 21.
The production design could not be any better for it was the most inventive and full of surprises in all my years of attending Opera, Ballet, and Theatre. At first impression, the set looked ugly and left something to be desired. An enormous sand-painted platform overwhelmed the center of the stage with two cheap looking and exceedingly flat cut outs of palm trees flanking the ugly box. They almost had the quality of a paper cut out. Little did I know how apropos they’d end up being! But at that moment I couldn’t help but wonder what the Dallas Opera was doing with such a cheap looking set – perhaps they ran out of money after the last several lush productions? A large toy plane flew overhead and with a small spark “crashed” crashed down towards the landscape. Ugh! We all laughed in the audience for the cheesiness of it…but then…what a sight! The entire top of the platform began to open up. This massive platform as it raised itself from the back hinge revealed the set. The stage had become one enormous 3 dimensional “pop-up” card! The sheer brilliance and engineering caused a thunderous applause in the audience. The “artifice” of the set beautifully framed the Opera. When the action then returned back to the desert, the “card” closed as the set folded into itself. Behind it there was a life sized airplane of the “toy” plane we had seen at the play! I was sitting slightly left of center. When and how they got this enormous prop on stage, I do not know. It seemed to have appeared as if by magic. Later on a hot air balloon descends on the stage. Each opening and closing of the set generated peals laughter, applause and awe in the audience. Absolutely stunning!
All the principal roles of this madcap Opera were played with such bucolic enthusiasm that it spilled out into the audience. The Italian “Girl” played by Manuela Custer in a gorgeous bel canto voice was no shrinking violet. She was sharp, bitchy, funny, yet extremely lovable. It is easy to see why Lindoro, played by the most handsome and likable William Burden would pine for her. William Burden, if an award were given for best tenor living, would definitely be eligible for the award. His is not the typical operatic voice one associates with tenors. He produces rich crystal clear sounds so effortlessly it seems almost as if he were singing a modern pop tune; he does this because he has an incredible control over his instrument. His voice could cross over out of the Opera world and into popular song the way Mario Franguolis has and probably exceed him. Think of him as the Josh Groban of the Opera world, yes his voice is that appealing. Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers, was played by Paolo Pecchioli. While Paolo at times didn’t give us the richest sound he delivered the most guffaw-inducing performance. Purists may have wanted him to give a more full vocal delivery, but to me, I was happy enough to have him sacrifice vocal delivery in exchange for his cavorting on stage – at one point he leaps around throwing around rose petals. I’m more surprised he didn’t run out of breath more often. Ava Pine as his wife Elvira was her usual glorious self. Ava is practically a home grown talent, and every time she appears on stage I am stunned, as is the audience. She isn’t just a wonderful opera singer, she is an amazing actress: she completely transforms to become the character she is portraying. One could say she is the Meryl Streep of the opera world. Rounding out this cast are Zuma played by Clara O’Brien, John Sauvrey as Haly and Patrcik Carfizzi as Taddeo. These three deserve many praises for their performances; each had a moment to shine.
Chris Alexander the director captured the essence of this opera and delivered it onstage. He utilized the pop-up set to its maximum benefit by placing the performers on this stage as if they were additions to the 3-D cut-out design. He understands slapstick and knew how far he could push it without it becoming groan-inducing. David C. Woodward’s costumes played up on the illustrative quality of the set by making the costumes broad and colorful. Duane Schuler as the Lighting Designer further enhanced the visuals with his clever use of desert light. At one point Isabella gestures to the light booth to bring down the light and it is done. What followed is an exchange of physical gestures with light responses that became quite funny. That light can cause humor shows the master and talent behind the design.
Graeme Jenkins is the very accomplished conductor that guided the music. Having attended the Dallas Opera for nearly 10 years and listening to him conduct I could tell he was giving it his all closing night. I’ve always enjoyed his artistry but this last performance at the Music Hall was his best - perhaps because of the significance and history of the moment. At curtain call he gave some final thoughts and thanks and then he encouraged all of us in the audience to sing Auld Lang Syne. With the full orchestra, the singers, the chorus, and the 3000+ people in the Musical Hall singing, there was barely a dry eye.
So as the Dallas Opera leaves Fair Park to its new venue, I will carry many memories of this great Opera Company at its old location. In the last 10 years I have seen from that company two of the worst stage production of any medium: Wozzeck back in 2000, and the disastrous world premier of Tobias Picker’s Theres Raquin in 2001. I have also seen some of the best productions of my life there, too: Madame Butterfly in 2000, Cosi Fan Tutte in 2003, Jenufa in 2004, Paglicci in 2005, Tosca in 2008, and now The Italian Girl in Algiers in 2009. As a critic and patron, I would remiss if I didn’t say: Congratulations and thank you Dallas Opera!
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