Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri (Palais Garnier - Paris 2014)

Gioachino Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri

Opéra National de Paris, 2014

Riccardo Frizza, Andrei Serban, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, Antonino Siragusa, Varduhi Abrahamyan, Tassis Christoyannis, Jaël Azzaretti, Anna Pennisi, Nahuel Di Pierro

Palais Garnier, Paris - 7 April 2014

Taking nothing away from Rossini as a composer or the undoubted qualities that are to be found in many of his works, but expectations are never likely to be very high for yet another production of L'Italiana in Algeri. It's not the most sophisticated of works, it doesn't have a particularly great libretto or originality in its situation, and there's only so much mileage in the humour. Dashed off with customary speed to a tight deadline moreover, Rossini simply reused music from other works - which in itself isn't uncommon for this composer, but in this case the music was often written for works in a completely different context that would appear to make it unsuited for use in an opera buffa. On the other hand, a production of L'Italiana in Algeri can make for a very entertaining night at the opera, if it's done right.

The very least you can say about Andrei Serban's production of L'Italiana in Algeri for the Paris Opera however is that it's entertaining. It might not make a lot of sense, it's inconsistent and somewhat nonsensical in its concept and design, but in that respect it suits the nature of the work itself. It helps however if you have a strong cast that is capable of injecting some life and additional humour into the work, and it's hard to find any serious fault with the performances in this 2014 revival of the Paris production at the Palais Garnier. In some respects it might feel a bit routine and calculated, but again, that's something that's largely inherent within the opera itself. It's not exactly a work that is going to open itself up to radical reinterpretation.

That doesn't mean however that the work can't benefit from a distinctive touch, and in Serban's case, grotesque exaggeration and a sense of randomness is the name of the game. Right from the start we are treated to a grand chorus of eunuchs in fat suits, who go as far as to exhibit their credentials (or lack of them in this case) as they bend over at the start of Act II. Bathing beauties in bikinis splash around in glass tubs (without water) and are sort of anointed for no apparent reason by flamingos borne on the top of the heads of female servants. There's a huge rose that appears to be a representation of the sun, or possibly love or the heat of desire. The ship that brings Isabella to Turkey and lies shipwrecked at the bottom of the sea looks rather like the Titanic, while Isabella is promptly captured and put in a cage by a man in a gorilla suit. There appears to be no rhyme or reason for any of these choices.

Period realism then evidently isn't a consideration, and nor should it be, it seems, as long as it looks good and at least gives the right impression. It's probably fair to say that the impression of comic exaggeration that Serban settles for is one which he considers as being in the nature of the work itself, and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with that judgement. L'Italiana in Algeri is a silly comedy, but also an entertaining one, and the director pitches this production firmly in that style. So if you want to give the impression of the Bey Mustafa as being a bit of a tyrant who is full of himself and used to getting his own way, that impression is clearly evident in his dress and demeanour. All gold and guns, looking like a north African or middle-Eastern despot; he's the king of bling in a shiny suit.

As similar sense of exaggeration - or obviousness - is applied elsewhere as the Italianisms set in, with Mustafa's men all dressed like Mafia dons in pin-striped suits with wide shoulders, waving pistols and gesticulating into mobile phones. A bit random, a bit obvious, but it gets the right impression across. The 'pappataci' scene is no place for subtlety evidently, and Serban's production consequently goes all out for cliché, with a dancing bottle of wine, a floppy pizza and a couch representing the attributes of the Italian male that Mustafa wishes to bear as a badge of honour. As over-emphasised as this is, it's fine. The stage is filled with colour and it illustrates the absurdity of the situation and the libretto. It's not to be taken seriously.

The stage direction is also mostly fine, if often quite outlandish with the gorilla wandering around, but it suits the content. In particular, Isabella's playing of the three males on a Dali lip-couch is neatly choreographed and amusingly played, the Pappataci scene works well and certainly raises a smile, while the ensemble finale of Act I achieves exactly the right kind of impact. In fact, Serban is at his best when he has to orchestrate chorus and ensemble singing, always making the scenes interesting. Solo scenes and arias tend to be a little more hit and miss, and that's usually where the random elements are slipped in. There's not a lot else you can do with personality or motivation in the direction of these characters.

It more down to the cast to bring some personality to their roles and Rossini at least gives each of them plenty of opportunity to make an impression. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo has plenty of swagger and arrogance as Mustafa and sang reasonably well, but it did seem a little routine. Antonino Siragusa stepped in to replace the advertised Kenneth Tarver as Lindoro and while it's not necessary to have an actual Italian singer in the role (evidently since Juan Diego Flórez is still currently the best Rossinian tenor in this kind of comic role), it certainly benefited from Siragusa having precisely the right kind of voice and delivery for the role. By no means perfect - there are few who can master the demands of roles like this - it was nonetheless played and sung with considerable aplomb. I also enjoyed the comic side of Tassis Christoyannis' performance, and his singing of the role was faultless.

Varduhi Abrahamyan however rightly dominated proceedings as Isabella. She looked the part and sang it well, lacking perhaps only a little bit of feistiness that might have given the performance an extra edge. The same could be said about the orchestra under the direction of Riccardo Frizza. It was a little too 'nice' and could have used a little more of an injection of energy, but the playing was superb and it was a fine interpretation. Despite the rushed nature of its composition, there is - as always with Rossini - much elegance in the musical writing and arrangements of L'Italiana in Algeri and that was certainly evident here. Not the most exciting production of L'Italiana in Algeri then in Paris, a little too 'respectful' and routine, but certainly entertaining.