There is not a hint of politics, terrorism or war in the plot of the 21-year-old Gioachino Rossini's opera, L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) – indeed, there is nothing profound at all – nothing except delightful light-hearted music. Add the superb singing and inspired directing of the current production of the Piedmont Opera, and you have the recipe for a wonderfully charming musical experience.
Taking place in Algiers (capital of Algeria), the story revolves around the ruler or Bey, Mustafà, who is disenchanted with his harem (his wife, Elvira, in particular) and seeks an Italian wife. A shipwreck of Italians might make his wish come true – but not if the lady in question, Isabella, has anything to do with it. Indeed, she had been on the traces of her lost fiancé, Lindoro, when she was stranded with several of her compatriots. Lindoro had been captured earlier and was being held by Mustafà as a slave; so, imagine the surprise when the two meet up and plan their escape. The plot involves the feminist Isabella manipulating Mustafà in the most outrageous manner in order for the couple to gain its freedom. A subplot involves a suitor of Isabella, Taddeo, who masquerades as her uncle and on whom the disgruntled Mustafà tries to unload his wife.
Isabella, magnificently sung by the beautiful mezzo-soprano, Aleks Romano, was no match for the Bey. She twisted him around her finger with the same ease with which she sang the demanding coloratura part Rossini composed. But it was the rich color and power of her deep voice, the dramatic intensity and emphatic enunciation, rolling her "Rs" with derision, that were most striking. And those constantly moving eye-brows as she planned and plotted each ploy, from the first reversal of the roles of captor and captive, a neat rope trick, to the ultimate escape with Lindoro in tow.
Her antagonist, the Bey Mustafà, was sung by the imposing bass-baritone Brian Banion, a tall character and superb actor prone to rapid staccato (quasi-Italian) movements which the whole court seemed to mimic. His wife, with a voice powerful enough to deafen him, as he claims, was soprano Megan Cleaveland, whose familiar voice sounds more round and rich with each role she sings. She impressively learned tricks from the Italian Isabella and worked them to win back her man.
Tenor Norman Shankle was the lucky Lindoro who found his fiancée without looking for her. Shankle has a honey-sweet voice that glided like silk through Rossini's ornate and complex writing. There is a hilarious duet in which captive Lindoro and captor Mustafà sing a patter-style duet in rapid-fire diction suited only to Italian. His erstwhile rival, the fake-uncle Taddeo, was sung by bass Scott MacLeod whose pleasing voice and excellent intonation and diction matched his most convincing acting.
In smaller but necessary roles, Amanda Moody-Schumpert, mezzo-soprano, who never seemed to be without a goblet in hand, was effective in the role of Zulma, the confidante of the royal consort, Elvira. Cameron Jackson, bass, was the bombastic Haly, the captain of the Bey's pirates or guards, portrayed as only too willing to skewer or impale his prisoners, particularly the fastidious and mannered Taddeo.
It is indeed fortunate that our culture has associated the music of Rossini with cartoons, for at almost any moment in this opera buffa there was something amusing if not down-right comic. The harem was guarded by ten roly-poly eunuchs, comic and effeminate, with hand shaking, prancing, and quick movements belying their corpulence, but adding much to the general hilarity. In particular, there was a well-coordinated coffee-drinking scene in which the eunuchs poured endless demitasses of Turkish coffee from brass-handled copper pots while the whole company succumbed to a hilarious caffeine-high. The brilliant director responsible for so much of the success, detail and coordination of the entire production is young Michael Shell, a one-time student of the prestigious University of North Carolina's School of the Arts, now in the midst of a burgeoning career in opera direction.
The other outstanding partner in this excellent production was the music director, James Allbritten, also the General Director of the Piedmont Opera. Under his leadership, the orchestra was fine-tuned and impeccably responsive to the stage. Only occasionally did the enthusiasm of the chorus of eunuchs try to push the tempo, but Allbritten prevailed and maintained control. There were some outstanding solos from the winds – Robert Campbell's horn obbligato in Lindoro's opening Cavatina in Act I, and Kathryn Levy's pure flute solo in Isabella's solo "Per lui che adoro…," plus fine oboe and piccolo as well as superbly controlled string playing which made the familiar Overture one of many sparkling highlights of the evening
Lighting Designer, Norman Coates had his moments although the kaleidoscope of alternating colors on the backdrop detracted from the stage, and the attempted projection of the Italian tricolor bled too much to be effective. Wig and make-up designer, Martha Ruskai, brought us striking turbans, in addition to the costumes supplied by Malabar Limited, Toronto. In particular, Isabella's gowns were gorgeous. The performance is repeated on Sunday afternoon, March 19 and Tuesday evening, March 21. See sidebar for details.