By Michael Reid
Opera is serious music. Bel canto singing is a physically demanding art that requires years of training to attain even a basic competence. The music is complex and intelligent, and calls for intense concentration to appreciate or enjoy; the plots involve high tragedy, addressing the madness of kings or the death of gods. Opera is dense, complex, layered. It is most certainly not funny.
Thing is, nobody ever bothered to tell Gioachino Rossini that.
The 19th century Italian composer clearly had no use for the grim and the tragic. Creator of such classics as “il barbiere di Siviglia” (“The Barber of Seville”) and “Guillaume Tell” (“William Tell”), Rossini’s mastery of the madcap was confirmed by no less an expert than Ludwig von Beethoven himself, who told the young composer “Never try to write anything but opera buffa [comic opera]; any other style would do violence to your nature.”
The Atlanta Opera brings to a close its 2012-2013 season with Rossini’s “La italiana in Algeri” (“The Italian Girl in Algiers”), an almost-vaudevillian romp that premiered in 1813 and brought the then 20-year-old composer widespread fame.
“The Italian Girl in Algiers” tells the story of Isabella (sung by soprano Sandra Piques Eddy, pictured below), the eponymous Italian girl, who, accompanied by her elderly admirer Taddeo (bass baritone Bruno Pratico), has been searching the Mediterranean for her lost lover Lindoro (tenor Michele Angelini). When her plane crashes in the kingdom of Algiers, she becomes the newest slave of Mustafà, the Bey. It is a fortuitous happenstance for the Bey (bass Burak Bilgili), who has grown tired of his submissive wife Elvira and has ordered his chief of corsairs to find him an Italian girl: “I have a great desire to have one of those signoras who tantalizes so many gallants.”
To clear the way for his seduction of Isabella, Mustafà decides to marry off his wife to his Italian slave, who is of course the lost Lindoro. Tormented by homesickness and the memory of his beloved Isabella, Lindoro sings a heartfelt aria, “Languir pera una bello,” and, after a comic duet in which Mustafà enumerates the charms of Elvira (“Hair?” “Black.” “Cheeks?” “Pretty.” “Face?” “Beautiful.”), agrees to take Elvira with him if the Bey permits him to return to Italy.
When Mustafà sees the ravishing Isabella, he instantly falls deeply in love with the spirited Italian, and Isabella’s initial fears for her fate (expressed in the aria “Cruda sorte! Amor tiranno!” are allayed as she realizes that, like all men, she can wrap the Bey around her finger (“The blackbird is already in the cage, he can no longer escape from me! I am sure of my scheme. What a mug!”)
Using her new power over the smitten Mustafà, Isabella concocts a scheme to rescue herself, Taddeo, Lindoro and all the other Italian slaves. She prepares a huge feast at which Lindoro and Taddeo initiate the Bey into the mythical order of the Pappataci, who live only to eat, sleep and drink. Having taken the Pappataci vow Mustafà – resplendent in robes fashioned from an Oriental carpet and gorging himself on pasta in oil -- ignores Isabella’s flight with Lindoro and the slaves. Finally realizing that he’s been duped, the Bey calls for his soldiers – who are too drunk to respond!
If all this sounds like a farce, it is – especially as presented by director Helena Binder, who cheerfully embraces the opera’s light-hearted silliness. Isabella’s first appearance onstage, for example, is being passed hand to hand by Mustafà’s corsairs as part of a human chain transporting her luggage to the Bey’s palace.
As enchanting as the music is – and Rossini was known for his memorable melodies, most famously the “William Tell Overture” – much of the fun of the Atlanta Opera production comes from the background antics of the chorus, such as the tailors who strip Taddeo to his linen drawers before dressing him in “Turkish” robes, or the band of Pappataci, arrayed in carpets and pillows, as pictured below, solemnly performing a ludicrous dance as part of the Bey’s initiation.
Binder sneaks in modern pop-cultural references as well – Isabella strikes a Marilyn-Monroe-esque pose in a silver lamé gown, and the bombastic and self-important Mustafà wears a medal-laden khaki uniform not unlike that worn by Moammar Gadhafi. No, this is not “serious” opera – but it is a lot of fun.
“The Italian Girl in Algiers” runs through May 5 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
Photos by Jeff Roffman, courtesy of the Atlanta Opera
ACVB guest blogger Michael Reid is a tour guide for Atlanta Culinary Tours.