Review: The Italian Girl in D.C. – May 18, 2006

Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” had been a once a decade opera for me. I had seen five performances (two in the 1960s, one in the 1970s, one in the 1990s) the fifth being the Santa Fe production at San Francisco Opera, reviewed elsewhere on this website, with William Burden as Lindoro, the object of the Italian Girl’s desire, and with Vivica Genaux and Dean Peterson, respectively, as Isabella and Mustafa, rounding out the troika of star roles whose casting is essential to achieving this opera’s potential.

In my previous essay on “L’Italiana” I recorded several thoughts external to the performance I was attending that last evening of September, 2005. First, that the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, whose operatic productions I have admired over the past 45 years, created a production of the Rossini comedy for the Met. Second, I noted that circumstances of my own travel schedule required me to miss the first night cast of Olga Borodina (Isabella), Ildar Abrazakov (Mustafa), and Burden (Lindoro), with the alternative pairing of Genaux and Peterson as Isabella and Mustafa, alongside Burden’s welcome Lindoro.

[Below: Olga Borodina as Isabella in the Metropolitan Opera’s Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of “L’Italiana in Algeri”; resized image, based on a Marty Sohl photograph for the New York Metropolitan Opera.]

Third, I conceded that the Santa Fe production is an imaginative transposition of the opera’s action to the early 20th century, so as to enable Isabella to become an aviatrix who crashes her plane in what would have to have been French Colonial Algeria. Yet, I expressed disquiet at the thought of moving this opera’s action into the early 20th century. What in other time-shifted opera productions might be annoying anachronistic, in the case of a 20th century “L’Italiana” time-shift seemed to me to be dangerously anachronistic.

The opera, when you drill down into it, is a running gag about how easy it is for a determined woman from a European colonial power to outwit a corrupt and foolish Muslim chieftain. As I pointed out in my previous essay, early and mid- 20th Algeria proved to be an unfriendly place for colonialism, and the Algerians demonstrated that they were not to be outwitted. The French apparently did not think to send an Italian Woman (to supplement the French Foreign Legion) to keep the Algerians in line, but it seems unlikely to have worked.

The Ponnelle production’s Met in Fall, 1973, was a natural vehicle for Marilyn Horne, who, nine years earlier at age 29 (1964) had had great success, in a performance I attended, with the role of Isabella for San Francisco Opera’s Spring Opera. But she was technically unavailable, since she was committed to star with Luciano Pavarotti in the 1973 San Francisco Opera opening night new production of Donizetti’s “La Favorita”.

Horne’s solution was to withdraw from the San Francisco production to star in Ponnelle’s Met production, even through she knew it meant enraging Kurt Herbert Adler, the San Francisco Opera General Manager. But crossing Adler was a dangerous move. When Maria Callas failed to show up for rehearsals for the 1957 SF Opera performances of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”, Adler retaliated by enforcing a lock-out of Callas by all three major opera companies in the United States, in accordance with a mutual defense treaty SF Opera had with the Met and the Chicago Lyric. This action did much to clip the wings of Callas’ soaring American career.

[Below: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s unit set for the New York Met production of Rossini’s “The Italian Girl in Algiers”; resized image of a production photograph for the New York Metropolitan Opera.]


But “Lucia” is the iconic bel canto opera, and will not be dislodged from the repertory by one diva’s no-show (and in 1957 the great Leyla Gencer stepped in to sing “Lucia” in Callas’ place). For a period of time, it seemed like Christa Ludwig would be willing to replace Horne, but an illness eventually made that impossible. Horne removing herself from the “La Favorita” production, with no artist of the stature of Gencer available to replace her, diminished the success of a worthy effort to introduce this important bel canto masterpiece to San Francisco audiences.

(For the record, I did enjoy the performance of the comparatively stature-less Maria Luisa Nave, one of two Horne replacements, and Pavarotti’s Rodolfo was the sensational performance one always expected from him.) Horne survived Adler’s wrath, and returned to San Francisco after not quite a decade in Adler’s dog house. Nearly two decades later the 57-year Horne performed “L’Italiana” in San Francisco’s main season, the company borrowing the very Met Ponnelle production that caused Horne to bolt from her San Francisco commitment, years after Adler’s retirement.

As it turned out, the stars (both heavenly and terrestrial) were aligned with my May travel schedule, and I found myself in Washington D.C. at a time when the Washington National Opera had scheduled an eight performance run of “L’Italiana”. And who were the Isabella and Mustafa? None other than Borodina and Abrazakov. And whose production were they using? The vintage production by Ponnelle. The Lindoro? Not Burden, but the Peruvian sensation Juan Diego Florez, whom I had seen as Don Ramiro in Ponnelle’s San Francisco Opera production of “La Cenerentola”.

[Below: Isabella (Olga Borodina) enchants Mustafa (here, Ferruccio Furlanetto, in a Metropolitan Opera performance of the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production; resized image, based on a Marty Sohl photograph for the Metropolitan Opera.]

The question was, could I secure a ticket? The Kennedy Center box office had slim pickings, but they said that if I walked a couple of blocks to the WNO offices in the Watergate Hotel, they often had better seats. In fact, as soon as I revealed my preference for the first row seat behind the conductor, they produced exactly that seat. So, this “once a decade” opera became one that I saw in two productions in less than eight months.

Conductor Riccardo Frizza’s operatic debut was Donizetti’s “Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali” which spoofs so many elements of Rossini comedies, including the zany accelerandos that are a feature of his overtures. What seemed a beautifully played but unusually slow clarinet solo at the beginning of the overture soon was revealed as Frizza affectionately exaggerating, with homage to “Le convenienze”, the slow prelude to what would soon become Rossini played at breakneck speed. You think you got accelerando? Well, I’ll show you accelerando!

Soon the beautiful Ponnelle production came into view. A single set, whose predominant color is ivory, displays Moorish arches and second floor windows with arabesque grills. Occasionally, the upper story windows open for some bit of stage action, such as Isabella imploring Venus to assist her in beguiling Mustafa, while Lindoro, whom she has purloined from Mustafa as her own slave, operates on the main stage as her go-between with the Bey.

Center downstage is cut away to allow exterior scenes that change to fit the dramatic situation. When the set represents Mustafa’s chambers, other structures in the palace compound are seen. When the stage directions calls for us to be on the Algerian coastline, we see Isabella’s ship (or model thereof) sailing the Mediterranean. For the final scene, when all of the Italians are escaping Mustafa’s clutches, an Italian ship docks at backstage center.

The sets are ingeniously used throughout the opera. For the first scene, along a top step that encircles stage center, a male chorus of masked, pot-bellied eunuchs each are repairing a section of a long silk cloth. Soon we are swept up in the issues of Mustafa’s out-of-favor wife Elvira (Lyubov Petrova), the bey Mustafa (Abdrazakov) and his slave Lindoro (Florez), with Lindoro so impressing Mustafa of the virtues of Italian women that Mustafa orders his henchman Haly (Valeriano Lanchas) to find him one.

For the scene where a group of pirates under the patronage of the Bey (I will have more to say about this element of the opera’s libretto below) attack the ship carrying the Italian Girl and her crew, a tiny ship appears on the Mediterranean waves, which is dispatched by a monster-sized cannon that the pirates have wheeled in. But all the Italians survive, and arrange themselves to enhance the Algerians’ (and the audience’s) first sighting of Isabella, all decked out in her finery.

Ponnelle’s imagination manifests itself throughout the production. Mustafa assembles his courtiers while he bathes. Costumed as a nude with curly chest hair, he opens the screens that shield his bath and a nude nymphette runs out. The interplay between Isabella’s shipboard companion Taddeo (hilariously played by Bruno de Simone), Haly, and Mustafa was sharp and funny. In the final scenes, after Mustafa has been persuaded to follow the strict dictates of the Order of the Pappataci, before the Italians escape they rush to the front of the stage carrying a “Viva l’Italia Unita” banner.

This testament to the genius of Ponnelle as set designer and stage director (David Kneuss was listed as the stage director for this production, but that role in a historic Ponnelle production includes being the custodian of the book of ideas about the stage action set down by the master), was further confirmed by the genius of Ponnelle as costume designer.

When one saw how fabulously Borodina looked in Ponnelle’s renderings of early 19th century European fancy dress (of course, with parasol) and in the exotic costume of a would-be lead wife of a bey’s harem, one can imagine Ponnelle coaxing Horne to bolt from her San Francisco commitments by sending her sketches of the costumes that she would be wearing at the Met.

The first section of the opera (before the entrance of Isabella) can be dominated by a great Lindoro. Florez, whose small but agile, occasionally reedy voice, seemed out of place in the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, seemed out-sized by the Kennedy Center also. But he is personable, and an effective, physical actor, adept with comedy — sometimes leaping in the air (as he does during the wild comic septet that ends Act I, usually the most vivid memory of any “L’Italiana” production), sometimes prancing or twirling about or incorporating a ballet step or two in his routines.

[Below: Juan Diego Florez is Lindoro; edited image, based on a Marty Sohl photograph for the Metropolitan Opera.]

Once Isabella arrives, the opera becomes the Isabella and Mustafa show, providing that the duo have both the vocal resources and comic talent to master the dimensions of this outsized pair. Borodina and Abdrazakov are “best of class” performers in both aspects. They are also married. I have reflected on all of the married opera stars I have seen performing together and can recall no case where two married performances both dominated a performance as B&A did.

The powerfully sung Samson of James McCracken (in San Francisco Opera’s 1963 production of Saint-Saen’s “Samson et Dalila”) totally overwhelmed the inadequate performance of his wife, Sandra Warfield, as Dalila. Fiorenza Cossotto was a stellar Amneris in a 1977 performance Verdi’s “Aida” while her husband, Ivo Vinco, failed to stand out in the “sixth billing” role of the King of Egypt.

Mirella Freni’s Mimi in 1988’s “La Boheme” was the star turn while her gifted spouse, Nicolai Ghaiurov (whom I had seen in several of his major roles), played the smaller role of Colline. (That performance was recorded for broadcast and DVD and co-starred Luciano Pavarotti, and these considerations, and the opportunity for Ghiaurov to leave a historical record of his presentation of Colline’s last act aria, appear to have persuaded him to accept the assignment. The DVD still sells well.)

Isabella’s arias leap over two octaves, and more than one mezzo singing the role projects a hoarse whisper or a gargle sound for the notes below the staff. Borodina has a powerful mezzo voice, secure throughout its range, with the ability to produce truly musical sounds in the lower notes of her register. Abdrazakov is likewise an astonishing performer, with a rich, robust bass voice, commanding stage presence, and the vocal flexibility to perform both the Rossini vocal ornamentations and the comic patter. He is also a very funny actor, and he and Borodina, who is also a first rank comic talent, clearly love the opportunity to play against each other.

The Washington National Opera audience at several points supplemented their applause with foot-stomping. This latter style of approbation rarely occurs in San Francisco (at least at performances I attend), but I can recall two occasions where a sold out house of SFO patrons universally stomped their feet to supplement already loud applause and shouts of “bravi”. In the grand acoustics of the War Memorial Opera House, that wall of sound can seem like continuous explosions.

I first heard universal foot-stomping at a 1978 performance of San Francisco Opera’s Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Puccini’s “Tosca” with legendary soprano Magda Olivero in the title role, Juan Lloveras as Cavaradossi and Giorgio Tozzi as Scarpia. The universal foot-stomping phenomenon reappeared when Mirella Freni performed the title role in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” with Ermanno Mauro as her des Grieux. Both performances were on Saturday nights. Foot-stomping may indeed be the occasional by-product of the chemical mix of Puccini operas, Italian divas, and San Francisco Saturday nights.

This performance was one of my most enjoyable experiences at the Kennedy Center, with only a production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” with Ruth Ann Swenson and Jerry Hadley almost a decade and a half earlier equaling it. But beyond enjoying the opera, I finally realized what I found unnerving in the Santa Fe production of “L’Italiana”.

It is the Kennedy Center’s proximity to national power that led me to realize that “L’Italiana’s” 1808 libretto by Angelo Anelli poked fun at an extraordinarily topical and sensitive subject – the bad behavior of the Barbary Coast states, including Algeria, all of which were outposts of the Ottomon Empire and all of which were acknowledged as condoning and providing safe harbor for piracy, for the capture of European and North American crews for ransom and slavery, and other outrages that we now call terrorist acts.

In fact, the least bellicose of the early American presidents, Thomas Jefferson, for decades had been staunchly opposed to paying tribute to rogue states. As president, he sent in the United States Marines in a pre-emptive strike on pirates and the Ottomon pashas that shielded them (thus “the shores of Tripoli” phrase in the Marines’ Hymn) just a few years before the libretto was published.

Jefferson’s actions in North Africa provide an often quoted precedent for the current United States doctrine of pre-emptive strike against sovereignties that aid terrorists. If the U.S., an ocean away from North Africa, went to war on the Barbary Coast (a phrase that plays on both “Berber” and “barbarian”), why would Italians, who presumably were more consistently in danger than the Yankees, and more often shaken down for tribute, regard the North Africans as the source material for comic operas?

Does the supposedly light fare of the Anelli “L’Italiana” libretto have a darker intent, like Charlie Chaplin’s satire of the Great Dictator? Anyway, over a century later, the Young Turks swept away the Ottomon pashas, and the North African states, whatever their 20th century legacy is or their 21st century history is to be, are different places than when they were ruled by beys and pashas. The Ponnelle production, unlike the time-shifted production from Santa Fe, is about that “once upon a time” land in which an Italian woman can safely outwit a bey.