Sarasota Opera delivers hilarity in true Rossini fashion.
Rossini wrote his opera, “L’Italiana in Algeri," when he was barely 22. “The Barber of Seville" would come along three years later — hardly a twinkle in its young father’s eye. But Rossini's wit, wildness and most of all, Champagne bubbles, were already in full bloom.
At the Sarasota Opera’s opening of “L’Italiana” Saturday night, the famous Overture gave us a hint that there were lots of fun and surprises ahead. The Sarasota Opera Orchestra, under the precise and ebullient leadership of Anthony Barrese, gave all the whomps and emphasis to this sparkling score needed to show us the ensemble, now a full week into the season, was very much in tune with itself and the music it was making. Rossini may be playful and fun but, like Mozart before him, clarity and precision are the hallmarks of his music, while the conductor must keep things bubbling along.
The action in this funny romp of an opera, takes place in Algiers, in and around the palace of the Bey, a large, somewhat grandiose and pompous leader who’s grown bored with his current wife, Elvira, and wants to replace her with a tempestuous Italian girl. He doesn’t know who she’ll be, but he seems to have this image in his head of a fiery young thing he’ll be able to tame, molding her with his great prowess to his image of what he really deserves as a wife.
In true Rossini fashion, Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers, gets just what he deserves. It’s how he arrives there that takes us on a two-act, hilarious journey into his court. And, in the process, we’re treated to the shenanigans of his courtiers, a shipwreck that happens to deliver a bevy of Italians he makes into his slaves and, of course, one startlingly gorgeous Italian lady named Isabella.
Isabella, who is on stage almost every moment from the time she arrives in Algiers, is played with fire and conviction by Tara Venditti, who turns her into the adult Despina from Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.” She’s clever and conniving, able to twist all men around her finger, and she even sings (as does Despina in the Mozart) that all men are made the same; they’re all fools. And, trapped in this new situation as a replacement wife-to-be, she proceeds to mow down every man who tries to seduce her, except the one she really loves, Lindoro, who happens to be in the court. Of course.
Every voice on stage in this wonderful new production by stage director Mark Freiman, is a fine one. The first act was a bit too careful and studied and, on stage, missed the bubbles that were rising from the orchestra pit. But in Act II, everyone started to relax and have fun, resulting in real Rossiniana and some hilarious bits of stage action.
Actually, the fun began at the finale of Act I, when Freiman introduced some hilarious stage business that took the singers into a crazy wave (think sports waves) and made the audience laugh so hard it almost overpowered the singers. From there on, the schtick, which was carried out to a T by the performers, produced bust-a-gut laughter, the performers all seemed to be having a ball and the Rossini bubbles burst forth from the stage.
“L’Italiana” is an opera that needs great singers, who can negotiate a huge range, lots of fast embellishments, sing patter songs faster than Gilbert and Sullivan ever dreamed up and be individual characters who become beloved by the audience. The character who succeeded best at all this was Isabella’s companion, Taddeo (Bruno Taddia), who knew the style in his bones and went on to inspire both the audience and his compatriots on stage with a wonderful zeal. Elvira (Jessica E. Jones) and her slave and friend, Zulma (Fleur Barron), both accomplished studio artists, were in fine voice and strong character.
Harold Wilson as Mustafa, warmed to his role as the opera progressed, and as he relaxed, he became his character and had less trouble with the musical fioratura and pitch than he had in the beginning. Hak Soo Kim, the tenor in the shoes of Lindoro (Mustafa’s favorite slave who also happens to be madly in love with Isabella), has a fine, vibrant voice that also warmed as he became his character and seemed to have a ball doing it. And Haly, sung by Studio Artist Alexander Charles Boyd, was just right as the conspiratorial Captain of the Algerian corsairs.
Of course, once we meet her, the world of this opera revolves around the diminutive but mighty shoulders of Isabella, and Tara Venditti did her proper justice. She has a smaller voice than we’re used to hearing in this role but with a good, solid more-than-two-octave range that’s smooth from bottom to top, and a great stage demeanor, she brought off the power of this independent woman and twists, not only her stage compatriots around her finger, but also manages to win the hearts of the audience.
The clever sets by scenic designer Michal Schweikardt take us, in the blink of an eye, from rooms inside the palace to the seashore and even a moving ship. They’re well lit by Ken Yunker, and the costumes (sometimes hilarious in themselves), are well conceived by Howard Tsvi Kaplan. Roger Bingaman’s small but impressive chorus is powerful and well acted by Sarasota Opera Apprentice Artists.
For a respite from traffic and politics of the day, “L’Italiana” is the perfect prescription.