United Kingdom Rossini, L’italiana in Algeri: Soloists, Garsington Opera Orchestra & Chorus / David Parry, Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 4.6.2016. (CR)
Sung in Italian with English surtitles
Isabella, Ezgi Kutlu
Lindoro, Luciano Botelho
Mustafà, Quirijn de Lang
Taddeo, Riccardo Novaro
Elvira, Mary Bevan
Zulma, Katie Bray
Haly, Božidar Smiljanić
Director, Will Tuckett
Designer, George Souglides
Lighting Designer, Giuseppe di Iorio
Will Tuckett’s new production for Garsington of The Italian Girl in Algiers cleverly and amusingly embodies the confrontation between the sensibilities of Muslim North Africa and Italy. The centrepiece is like a huge sail caught in the wind, undulating upwards, set into which is a flight of stairs leading up to Mustafà’s throne. This upper section is supported by Baroque Solomonic columns and a curving cantilevered staircase leads down again at the back. Perhaps it is not fanciful to suggest that these Italianate features and outlines of Geroge Souglides’s design, with the seat precariously positioned on a contour at the top of the ascending set, dynamically insinuates the way in which Mustafà is in thrall to the charms of Isabella and the way of life she brings from across the Mediterranean. An Arabic arch, a fountain, and hanging lanterns bring to bear a more eastern influence and set up the opposition to be played out.
Without wings or a proscenium arch on the stage, there is a danger that choreography could become limited, but that pitfall is skilfully avoided with the action that unfolds over the set, and it opens up at the back to reveal the shipwreck and later on the departing ship at the end of the opera. It is also a neat touch that the sequences of Giuseppe di Iorio’s lighting (variously red, white, and green) come together at the conclusion to form the Italian flag.
Curiously, from the costumes of the Italians, we deduce that the time of this production must be the 1940s, and Isabella appears dowdily dressed like a Home Counties wife with her twin set and pearls, red frock, and handbag carried on her forearm. Vocally, Ezgi Kutlu was commanding, with a powerful, rich-toned chest voice, able to put Mustafà in his place and carry the day. But it was Mary Bevan as his unloved wife, Elvira, who was the more alluring musically and dramatically on stage. Bare-chested through his waistcoat, and with a swaggering demeanour, Quirijn de Lang’s Mustafà was a handsome playboy figure who sang with vigorous charm to match, after a slightly congested start where his coloratura on first appearing was somewhat approximate.
In the high tenor part of Lindoro, Isabella’s true love, Luciano Botelho sang reedily and not exactly mellifluously in the upper range, but the notes were placed accurately, which is no mean achievement in itself. He could also have evinced more charisma in the role but he, like Isabella, were characters which could be taken seriously and respected, as compared with the whimsical denizens of the Algerian court.
As the feckless captain of the palace guard, Božidar Smiljanić complemented Mustafà’s ineffectual blustering with a performance of Haly which combined wit and naïveté, whilst Katie Bray as Elvira’s attendant Zulma matched her mistress for vocal agility and radiance. Riccardo Novaro replaced Geoffrey Dolton as Taddeo, Isabella’s companion, who is passed off as her uncle, with comic consequences. Taddeo’s seniority in age gives the cue in this production for rendering the notion of the ‘Pappataci’ brotherhood as that of a ‘Sugar Daddy’ – the bogus order into which the Italians enlist Mustafà in the attempt to escape his clutches, playing upon some of the psychological motivations which impel the characters’ behaviour in the drama. Novaro seemed aloof at first but he grew into the role and realising its comic capacities, particularly when he is improbably made Lord High Kaimakan.
David Parry’s conducting of the Garsington Opera Orchestra was leisurely in the overture, and tended to remain casual and relaxed, with some of Rossini’s fizzing, high-paced ensembles later not quite firing on all cylinders. His interpretation did, however, work to better effect in highlighting the elegant, Mozartian elements of the score’s more intimate moments, as well as those numbers which preempt bel canto (for example in two of Isabella’s arias). The Chorus followed suit, and there was some finely detailed layering in their music which brought out the subtlety of Rossini’s writing – a quality not always associated with him, perhaps.
Overall, then, there are many fine individual elements in this production. They did not all quite cohere into a musical unity here, but over the course of this run they should settle down and take on a sparkling, comic life of their own, and audiences will find much to enjoy.