The Indiana University Opera Theater opens their 2009-2010 season with Gioachino Rossini’s first big success the comic L’Italiana in Algeri in a production that features beautifully nuanced orchestral playing , intelligently musical singing and some delightfully energetic moments of flat out farce. Recently appointed veteran opera and orchestral conductor Arthur Fagen makes his IU opera debut with the show.
From the first notes of the overture through those delightful Rossini-built crescendos and on into the opera, Fagen’s conducting was model of balance between stage and pit. There were plenty of dynamics, but for me the emphasis seemed always on the delightfully varied textures of the music and I should add that the individual solo moments were all handled with aplomb.
For L’Italiana in Algeri the always pressed for time Rossini used a stock comic libretto. The plot is simple. An Algerian Mustafa has grown tired of his wife, Elvira, and wants one of those lively Italian ladies. He’s threatening his aide, Haly, with impalement if he doesn’t deliver. Fortunately one such woman, Isabella, is just then conveniently ship wrecked. She’s accompanied by her current older beau, Taddeo. To avoid being impaled, he reluctantly agrees to Isabella’s scheme and pretends that he’s her uncle. Isabella discovers that her lost love, Lindoro, is actually a slave to the Mustafa and they plot to set things to rights. After much lovely singing and silliness the Mustafa stays with his wife, Isabella and Lindoro with Taddeo sail off and no one gets impaled.
It could have been just a fine buffa comedy, but Rossini brought in some more lyrical elements from the opera seria style. He artfully uses them to bring out the character of his hero and heroine and to engage our sympathies. This doesn’t free any of the singers from the demands of the fast buffa style, but it did offer tenor Joshua Whitener and mezzo Amanda Russo some lovely character moments. All of Saturday night’s singers sang well in fine nuanced performances. The solos were good and the ensembles were varied and arresting. Rossini’s score is demanding and there are real issues of stamina. It takes a cool head along with a warm heart to perform these pieces.
Although I did enjoy L’Italiana … frankly, after a summer of straight theatre and musicals, I was a little disappointed by the overall level of acting. The role of the Mustafa sung by Joseph Beutel seemed too shallowly imagined and except for a couple of scenes the chorus didn’t have much to do. However, to Stage Director Vincent Liotta’s credit, the plot did move along, there were genuine laughs and the famously breath taking finale of the first act was a musical and geometrical delight.
L’Italiana in Algeri by Gioachino Rossini
Indiana University Opera Theatre
September 25-26 and October 2-3, 2009
Arthur Fagen, Conductor
Vincent Liotta Stage Director
Patrick Mero, Lighting Designer