Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri (Pesaro 2013 - Blu-ray)

Gioachino Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro - 2013

José Ramón Encinar, Davide Livermore, Anna Goryachova, Yijie Shi, Alex Esposito, Mariangela Sicillia, Raffaella Lupinacci, Davide Luciano, Mario Cassi

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Their productions might not be to everyone's taste, but every year the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro consistently show that they have the composer's best interests at heart and, better than anyone else, they really understand how to get great neglected works by Rossini across to a modern audience. Director Davide Livermore has come up with several innovative productions for the festival over the years, including a Hollywood silent movie epic for Ciro in Babilonia and a backstage haunting of the ghosts of Demetrio e Polibio. As the groovy 60s Austin Powers styled the cover of the DVD for his 2013 L'Italiana in Algeri indicates, the approach taken here is again playful and imaginative but also completely faithful to the intentions and the spirit of the work.

Livermore's argument for this approach is that a work like L'Italiana in Algeri was never meant to be treated with po-faced classical opera seriousness, but was meant to raise huge laughs from its audience. There's no attempt in this opera to make any serious points about social and cultural differences, or even culinary tastes (Pappataci!) - it's just a broad farce, albeit one with a gifted composer at the helm. Livermore's point of reference for translating the work to a modern context - exactly 200 years after the work was first performed - is found in the films of Blake Edwards. (The Austin Powers movies are also clearly an influence, but they themselves are heavily indebted to Blake Edwards' Pink Panther movies). In theory this is a brilliant concept, in practice, it's not as much fun as it really ought to be.

Livermore's concept is definitely appropriate in its tone and workable in the context of the opera. It sees Lindoro as a secret-agent super-spy on a special mission, who is inadvertently caught by the henchmen of the nasty foreign evil-villain Mustafà and, perhaps unaware of his secret identity, is put into the Bey's service as one of his underlings. Just before he is captured however, Lindoro Powers manages to send off an SOS to his super-sexy sixties-styled sidekick Isabella, who comes to Algeria to his rescue. Arriving there (in a more modern fashion than on a shipwrecked ship, although a downed flight is a little bit of a sensitive issue at the moment), she finds herself embroiled in Mustafà's power games as he attempts to offload his wife Elvira in favour of this groovy chick who has just arrived from Italy. She's going to need to play clever to get out of this one without causing a major international incident.

The idea is a great one, and there's a lot to enjoy in the fun production, but the execution unfortunately doesn't entirely live up to the promise. Davide Livermore is a good opera director, but it seems he's not such a good comedy director. He's no Blake Edwards and he doesn't have a Peter Sellers or even a Mike Myers to work with here and everyone just seems to be trying just too hard to have fun. The opening sequence during the overture is much too busy, using intentionally cheap-looking cut-outs for opening-credits with 60s Batman TV-series sound-effects (Crash! Pow! Aaaaggh!).

Having set the scene, it would be enough to let the comic situation of L'Italiana in Algeri play out mostly for itself with all the terrific 60s and 70s styles and haircuts and all the psychedelic effects and colouration, but Livermore insists on trying to make it even funnier. Mustafà/Dr Evil's inability to make an entrance without accidentally firing a gun and killing a hapless henchman becomes a little tiring after a while. A pointless gag with Lindoro being dangled over a swimming-pool of sharks is a good Bond spoof, but it's more typical of how much visual effort and elaboration is put into making a gag look cheap, but in a way that is disproportionate to how funny it actually is. The stage is often cluttered, with too much going on and too many people mugging in an effort to be funny.

It's still a colourful and an entertaining production, just never quite as funny as it thinks it is (although you could probably say the same about L'Italiana in Algeri). The performance itself is likewise good, but not outstanding. The singing is fine and musically the performance is in safe hands with José Ramón Encinar conducting, but the work is missing a spark somewhere. The singing is all good, with Yijie Shi a capable Lindoro, Anna Goryachova a sassy Isabella wearing jaw-dropping outfits and Alex Esposito a spirited Mustafà with a tendency to overact, but no-one here has a personality big enough to really bring the roles to life.

The quality of the Blu-ray is good, showing off the bold colours of the production well enough, but it doesn't look quite as pinpoint sharp this time. The audio too I found a little bit low in volume, but the sound is well-recorded and all the detail is there, particularly if listened to on headphones. There's a ten-minute extra feature on the making of the production, and a cast gallery. The disc is all-region, BD50, with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.