Sunday, April 5

L.A. Opera meets eager ciao


L.A. Opera meets eager ciao

Poor music, acting sabotage production of Rossini’s ‘Italian
Girl in Algiers’

By John Mangum

Daily Bruin Senior Staff

Pasta everywhere.

These are two words to live by if you’re ever trapped in North
Africa and held prisoner by a loopy Ottoman emissary. At least,
that’s what L.A. Opera’s disorienting new production of Rossini’s
comic masterpiece "The Italian Girl in Algiers" would have you
believe.

The opera’s heroes make their escape with the help of the
favorite Italian dish in this production, an "Italian Girl" that
was decidedly amusing, but for the wrong reasons.

The evening marked the much-awaited L.A. Opera debut of
mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore, probably one of the world’s leading
young Rossini singers at the moment. Richard Bonynge, a
tried-and-true conductor with more than 30 years experience in
19th-century repertoire, was on hand to lead the L.A. Opera
Orchestra and Chorus.

Alain Marcel, known for his success with both operas and
musicals, was on hand to direct the production. This triumvirate
bore the heavy responsibility, bestowed by expectations, of making
this "Italian Girl" a success. Unfortunately, they each faltered,
and it was left to the rest of the cast to salvage what they
could.

The majority of the blame for the disappointing qualities of
this performance can be laid at Bonynge’s doorstep.

He failed to bring much of a sense of contrast to the music.
Brass, winds and percussion uniformly dominated the orchestral
texture. Most numbers were played at very similar relaxed speeds,
giving the whole opera a sluggish feeling.

There was not much spring or bounce in the music, and this lack
of rhythmic élan further contributed to the feeling of
flatness. While Bonynge controlled dynamics on the orchestral front
expertly, during louder passages, the singers couldn’t be heard.
Their mouths were wide open, their faces contorted with effort, but
not much sound reached the audience.

The overloud orchestra stacked the deck against Larmore from the
outset. When it could be heard, her performance was cleanly sung
and articulated, and she hit and held some thrilling notes at the
top of her range. But, at the tired pace set by Bonynge, her
coloratura failed to sparkle.

If there’s any work where the conductor and the singer assuming
the title role can disappoint and still not bring the whole
production crashing down, it’s this one. The tale of Rossini’s
"Italian Girl" requires a large roster of characters and puts them
in a series of genuinely amusing ensemble situations.

Mustafa, Bey of Algiers, finds his wife, Elvira, boring. He’s
heard his slave, Lindoro, expound the virtues of Italian women
enough to want to replace his wife with one.

Lucky for the Bey, an Italian ship sinks off his shore and his
men take its passengers prisoner. One of them, Isabella (the
Italian Girl of the opera’s title), has a fiery free spirit and
Mustafa’s sidekick, Haly, knows that she’s just what the Bey has in
mind.

Only there’s one thing the Bey and friends don’t know: Isabella
and her sidekick, Taddeo, were actually searching for her missing
boyfriend, Lindoro. She finds him, and the three go through some
pretty unbelievable machinations to escape.

As Lindoro, tenor Kurt Streit made the best of things and stood
out among the cast. His voice rang out over the orchestra during
each of his numbers and ensembles, and his singing proved to be
warm, sensitive and well-projected rather than just loud or
effortful.

His subtle approach to physical comedy brought many rewards,
like an amusing scene during Act 1. Lindoro makes a pizza while he
reflects on his fate, and Streit invested the preparation and
cooking with humor on a level seldom reached later on in the
evening.

As the Bey, Helmut Berger-Tuna had some problems with Rossinian
style, chucking articulation here and there to facilitate some
rapid passage-work, but he certainly fulfilled the comic
requirements of "Italian Girl." He cut an imposing figure on the
stage, making his fate in the second act all the more amusing for
its irony.

Bass-baritone Michael Gallup made the most of his role as
Taddeo. He hammed it up when required, altering his voice when
necessary. He did a nice impersonation of a eunuch, jacking his
voice up a couple of octaves and waddling around the stage with his
legs crossed.

The rest of the cast and the chorus brought their respective
roles off admirably.

Behind the scenes, set designer Dominique Pichou provided some
blandly colorless sets that played with perspectives in interesting
ways. Costume designer David Belgou served up the predictable
turban-robe-pointy-shoe combos for the Algerians, giving Isabella a
little bit of glamour a la Madonna in the video for "Material
Girl."

Director Marcel’s concept for the stage action consisted of a
lot of slapstick and comic gesturing. Had the music’s humor
emanated a little bit more from the pit, the goings-on on the stage
wouldn’t have felt so much like overcompensation.

But they did. Things on stage started to seem forced about
halfway through Act 1, when Isabella and Taddeo found themselves
shipwrecked. By the end of the evening, things descended into
absurdity, with bow-tie pasta dancing on stage and the Italians
making their escape on a fleet of little boats that were more like
skateboards with sails.

Champagne without the bubbles tastes yucky. Flat Rossini isn’t
much better.

OPERA: "The Italian Girl in Algiers" by Gioachino Rossini. Sung
in Italian with English supertitles. At the Dorothy Chandler
Pavilion Jan. 24, 27, 31 and Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 20 at 1 p.m.
TIX: $22-120, $15 for students and seniors one hour before curtain.
For more info call (213) 972-8001.

The performances of Helmut Berger-Tuna, as Mustafa, Bey of
Algiers, and Jennifer Larmore, as Isabella, are as disappointing as
a plate of cold linguine in "Italian Girl in Algiers."

Gallup, Berger-Tuna, and Streit are sufficient in the L.A.
Opera’s rendition of "Italian Girl."


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