L’Italiana in Algeri from the NBR New Zealand Opera

L’Italiana in Algeri by Rossini 

Conducted by Wyn Davies, director: Colin McColl, set and lighting design: Tony Rabbit, costumes: Nic Smillie, chorus master: Michael Vinten.

Singers; Wendy Dawn Thomson, Conal Coad, Christian Baumgärtel, Warwick Fyfe, Katherine Wiles, Richard Green, Kristen Darragh.

St James Theatre

Saturday 9 May 2009

The first of the two staged productions from New Zealand Opera in 2009 made a hit of an opera that is not really in the top twenty, even in Italy.

The Italian Girl has one of Rossini’s familiar, effervescent overtures, a couple of well-known arias and a lot of music that is infectious and witty, but a plot that is pretty thin.

It was last seen in New Zealand in 1983 in a production by Mercury Theatre in Auckland, the successor to the short-lived National Opera of New Zealand.

In the past 30 years, there has been a huge revival of interest in Rossini’s oeuvre of round 38 operas, most of which are not comedies. In his day he was more famous as a composer of dramatic opera. Among the comedies, one can think, after The Barber of Seville, only of La Cenerentola, this one and Il turco in Italia; there were several one act comedies – farces, burlesques – from his early years and in his last years in Paris – Il viaggio a Reims and Le comte Ory. All the other 30-odd operas are tragedies, dramas drawn from antiquity, medieval romances or from recent literature.

L’Italiana in Algeri

The secret of such comedy was fully understood by Conal Coad who took the part of Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers (Governor of the Ottoman province). He has shortcomings in western eyes, and these are mocked by presenting his character without the stock gestures of cheap farce. Coad knows that comedy depends on adopting an outwardly serious demeanour, with careful limits to stock comedic gestures, allowing pomposity and lack of self-awareness to be observed rather than drawn crassly to our attention.

Thus his every movement was pregnant with satire or self-evident foolishness; and his very presence on stage caused smiles: he was the essential focus of the comedy, and he triumphed.

The Italian Girl, Isabella, was sung by Wendy Dawn Thomson, a graduate of Victoria University and virtually runner-up in the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. She has sung at Covent Garden, Opera Australia, Scottish Opera, Opera North, among others and at major festivals. She is a splendid actress with a voice that is rich in histrionic character, though it was not, on the first night, particularly large: not as I remembered her in The Death of Klinghoffer in Auckland in 2005.

Degrees of under-projection also affected other singers, something not evident when they were at the front of the stage. Thomson’s performance consisted, however, as an opera singer’s must, in far more than simply good singing; she threw herself round the stage, used her limbs and her face expressively, drew all eyes to her whenever she was on stage.

I assumed that Christian Baumgärtel, as her lover Lindoro, had vocal problems in the early stages, as his voice was strained, reedy in ‘Languir per una bella’. But in his duet with Mustafa, ‘Se inclinassi…’, the hilarious water-skiing coup de théâtre, all was forgotten. By the second act he seemed more comfortable, as both his acting and singing expressed confidence and greater ease, finally displaying the form that justified his journey from Germany.

The most striking aspect of the production was the staging. It was presented as an onlooker’s view of a filming of the opera as soap opera, with an amusing, showoff, sometimes obscene film director (Stephen Butterworth), gesturing and shouting unscripted instructions to performers and camera and lighting crew somewhere in the gallery.

Above and behind the stage was a screen on which was projected in real time, what a camera in the wings stage left was capturing on the stage below the screen. It puzzled and distracted to begin with, but one got the hang of it.

It could have been a mess, but director Colin McColl had developed his idea, with set and lighting designer Tony Rabbit, with such confidence and so convincingly, that it had its own logic and the audience totally accepted it; more, they loved and were enchanted by it.

However, it’s a pity that Colin McColl’s notes, seeking to justify the setting by likening Rossini to today’s soap-operas, both denigrates the greatness of Rossini and ridiculously elevates the contemptible squalor of most of today’s TV theatricals. And the character of the production might reinforce that unfortunate comparison in the minds of less aware audience members; that was the excuse for skimpy-clad, non-singing ‘beach babes’ (I’m not sure what the beaches are like around Algiers city). My feeling was rather, that it would have persuaded sceptics that opera is absolutely not a museum art, any more than Shakespeare or Michelangelo are.

But all the hilarious stage business would have meant nothing if not underpinned by Wyn Davies’s management of the musical shaping, its tempi, the Rossinian spirit and élan, the orchestral discipline as well as imposing the final degree of ensemble between soloists, orchestra and chorus. (I hope it will be noted that I do not refer to the conductor, as most reviewers do, as simply the conductor of the orchestra: he conducts the entire performance).

The chorus was one of the performance’s great ornaments; though not numerous, their polish, clarity and energy was a credit to the work of Michael Vinten as chorus master. (It’s all male, in spite of the opportunity for using soprano and alto castrati, seeing they are eunuchs).

I particularly enjoyed the patriotic chorus in Act II where a combination of the basic stage green, the red t-shirts and white of some costumes reflected the Italian flag as well as spelling Viva Italia: foreshadowing Verdi’s ‘Va pensiero’ in Nabucco.

The lesser characters can seem rather secondary in some productions, but here the strength of both Warwick Fyfe’s Taddeo and Richard Green’s Haly made their roles both significant and memorable. In his notable Act II aria ‘Ho un gran peso sulla testa’, Fyfe, corpulent in white, had both striking physical and impressive vocal presence. At each of Green’s entries, particularly his aria ‘Le femmine d’Italia’, his imposing bass demonstrated his wide experience at ENO in London and the medium-sized house at Bremerhaven.

The Bey’s wife, Elvira and her maid, Zulma – Katherine Wiles and Kristen Darragh, were both splendidly cast and there was some debate in the interval about whether their figures and legs, rivaling the three beach-babes, had recommended them for the roles as much as had their vocal gifts. Wiles’s interventions were particularly vivid – one would hardly have thought she needed Isabella’s guidance in assertiveness. Darragh was clearly distinguished in the several ensembles.

This production is a brilliant combination of a passable libretto and sparkling music, all viewed through a production that plants it vividly and consistently in the present day.

Post scriptum

I enjoyed the performance so much that I went along to the second one on Tuesday (11 May), got a seat high in the gods. But there, little blemishes that I had ignored on Saturday loomed a bit larger: the shrill piccolo in the overture which I’d put out of my mind, was more annoying as it recurred at other points in the performance. Likewise I’d left little misgivings about the orchestra’s playing unexpressed; but in the gallery, where the orchestra’s sound seemed amplified above the voices, occasional untidiness in ensemble and obtrusive volume, crowding the singers, was noticeable as it had not been centre stalls. But their playing was very much at the very decent level of the many German opera house orchestras that I’ve heard.

Again I found tenor Baumgärtel’s voice a bit thin, even pressured and unbeautiful, though his acting wholly compensated. And my pleasure was confirmed in the voices and histrionics of the other singers. Nor could I fault the treatment of the work, the business of the filming, the entr’actes enlivened with the dispatch of singers not needed in the next scene, marshalling the chorus and the singers for the next act, retouching makeup, quick reviews of the action and so on; but it became a little tiresome occasionally.

Though McColl’s treatment was risky, it worked, and a second viewing gave me no reason to fault it, as an acceptable, goofy version of an opera that you can do almost what you like with, such is its fundamental silliness. At my distance from the stage, the surtitles were hard to read, often not visible, and I gauged that they were probably too high on the screen for the dozen back rows: there seemed no reason for them not to be at the bottom of the screen, where they would have been visible to the whole house. The texts however, were pithy and well judged. Like Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail, it dealt with the then popular subject of the nature of the Muslim world, and contacts between Christians and Muslims. Strangely, though the Balkan conquests by the Ottoman Empire in the previous century had posed a serious danger to Christian Europe, and their armies were near the gates of Vienna just before 1700 – the Austrian Empire was saved only by the timely arrival of a Polish army – attitudes towards Muslims were far more tolerant and even amused than they are today in certain countries.  Then there were no human rights commissions to object to stereotyping and ridiculing of a religious community. And so a Muslim leader could be pilloried for behaviour considered not comme il faut by polite European society of the time.

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