L’Italiana in Algeri: A brilliantly absurdist parody

924030By Georgina Benison — On Thursday evening last week, audiences at the Royal Opera House Muscat were delighted by Rossini’s 1813 comic opera, “L’Italiana in Algeri”, performed by the world renowned ‘Opera di Firenze’ with the orchestra and male chorus of ‘Maggio Musicale Fiorentino’ under the accomplished baton of Sebastiano Rolli.
The opera is set in a fairy-tale land — we are never quite sure whether it is Algeria or Turkey — of Arabic Palaces and exotic harems — a context amply described by set and costume designer Juan Guillen. The costumes are ridiculously huge and some of the effects — dry ice, a massive crescent moon which sails across the back of the set during one scene, an illuminated boat which lists, Titanic-like during an aria, and a cage which becomes a prison, descends from the rigging like a surreal balloon — are pure absurdist parody. Sometimes the distractions are at the expense of an opera seria moment: While Lindoro is singing passionately of his love for Isabella, a fountain which appeared in the middle of the stage suddenly started spouting real water — and it took a while to realise what the disruption was. Similarly, while Isabella sings her opening aria to establish her strength of character in the face of disaster, slaves carrying booty from the ship’s cargo caused a diversion of attention rather than amusement.
924026The tale features a shipwreck in a storm which is based on a true story of a kidnapping of a lady from Milan in the 19th century. This 2009 Barcelona-Florence production, directed by the eminent Spanish director, Juan Font, is hilariously slapstick with huge amounts of Opera Buffa, exuberance and exaggerated comic elements.
The story line is so absurd that it hardly bears relating, but the second Act becomes even more incredible, enabling the true lovers to escape and forcing the Bey to beg forgiveness and reconciliation with his wife.
The lead role of Isabella, the Italian girl of the title, is sung magnificently by the Sicilian mezzo-soprano, Marianna Pizzolato. Her larger- than-life character is perfectly placed in this humorous, seductive role and by the end of the opera the audience had fallen in love with Marianna’s guile and confidence, as well as her superb vocal control and pathos.
The voice we hear first in the harem is the light coloratura of Italian soprano, Damiana Mizzi as Elvira, the spurned wife of the Bey. Her plaintive, pure upper register gave a sense of poignancy to the drama whenever she was on stage.
Almost immediately after, Lindoro, Isabella’s lover and now the Pasha’s slave, sings the most beautiful love song to his lost beloved, and here the 924018Russian tenor, Maxim Mironov excelled in the role of protagonist, lover and lyrical lead voice. No wonder he is considered one of the greatest Rossini tenors of the day.
Marco Mimica, a fine bass-baritone from Croatia excelled in his role as the buffoon and infinitely gullible Mustafa, the governor or ‘Bey’ of Algeria (or some Moorish land of fictitious location).
The role of Taddeo, Isabella’s ardent admirer was sung to great acclaim by Omar Montanari for his amusing antics and Haly (or Ali), the Bey’s Captain of the Guard, was played with great gravitas by the young baritone Sergio Vitale.
I noticed before the opera began under principals, the role of  Tiger and wondered if this was a name of a Pirate. But in fact, it transpired that the Bey kept a pet tiger constantly at his side, and he was portrayed amazingly life-like and agile by dancer, Alfonso Cayetano. He received astounding applause during the final curtain calls.
Rossini was only 21 when he composed the Italian Girl, and as such it is a remarkable achievement by so young a composer, showing clear influences of the operas of Mozart while anticipating the more mature Rossini which we will hear on Saturday in the “Barber of Seville”.
Photo credits: Khalid al Busaidy, ROHM