22 September 2010

Week of Mezzo-Madness, Part 1: ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’

Kiss me, I’m Italian!
Marco Vinco (Mustafà) woos Vivica Genaux (Isabella).
Photo: Opéra de Paris/Mirco Magliocca©

In the Mezzophile Hall of Fame, a place of honor is reserved for Gioacchino Rossini, who loved mezzo-sopranos even more than I do (and who married one, Isabella Colbran). In his operas, the mezzo is typically given something more to do than merely poisoning the leading lady — and in fact she’s quite likely to be the leading lady. Such is the case with the fizzy comedy L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers), and a revival of Andrei Serban’s production from 2004 has returned Vivica Genaux to the Paris Opera in one of her most glamorous roles, opposite Lawrence Brownlee who, although not a mezzo-soprano, is a very exciting singer and a nice guy, besides.

Kicking off a week of Mezzomania, I attended the performance on 20 September.

Kiss me again! I’m still Italian!
On couch: Vinco, Jaël Azzaretti (Elvira), Lawrence Brownlee (Lindoro), Genaux;
standing, in turban: Alessandro Corbelli (Taddeo).
Photo: Opéra de Paris/Mirco Magliocca©

While Stendhal recommends generally that audiences focus on the “fresh, delightful” music in Rossini’s operas by paying no attention to the libretto and making up their own stories instead (advice that many European stage directors take too far), L’Italiana works beautifully on its own terms. Its libretto simultaneously plays off of stereotypes and mocks the risks of taking those stereotypes seriously. Thus we get a “Turk” who’s about as authentic as Rudolph Valentino’s Sheik and who’s absolutely mad to marry an “Italian” (because, you know, Italian women are so hot) — even if it means throwing over the perfectly lovely Turkish wife he’s already got.

Thwarting his scheme takes all the wiles of the Italian girl in question — and in the process, the gender conventions upended, since it’s the prima donna who outwits the bass and rescues the helpless tenor. These interweaving affirmations and reversals of expectation have been pleasing crowds for nearly 200 years.

I was Italian six years ago, too!
From the 2004 cast: Corbelli, Bruce Sledge, Simone Alaimo, Genaux
Photo: Opéra de Paris/Eric Mahoudeau©

Serban updates the plot to the present day without getting into politics, which is a good thing: use this opera to comment on strained relations between the Muslim world and the West, and everybody will go home miserable, which isn’t what Rossini wanted. Serban sees Mustafà (sung by Marco Vinco) as a cross between Qadaffi and a spoiled rock star, while Isabella (Genaux) is a scorching-hot, thoroughly modern Italian girl who doesn’t even bother to dress up in Turkish finery (even though it’s a plot point in the libretto). Our perceptions of Isabella (and of one another, perhaps) are about as realistic as a Varga girl; a cut-out of just such an image, with a striking resemblance to Genaux herself, slides on- and offstage from time to time on a pole.

We get idées réçues about the Middle East, too, with plenty of turbans, a Turkish bath, and some truly scary eunuchs. None of this explains why a gorilla kept scampering onstage — artfully portrayed by a mime but never fully integrated into the shenanigans. But Serban’s production never gets in the way of the most important business, notably including Alessandro Corbelli’s performance as Taddeo, the older man who’s so besotted with Isabella that he chases her halfway around the world and risks the wrath of the terrible Turk.*

The Gold Standard: Alessandro Corbelli
Photo by Alvaro Yanez©

I’m lucky enough to have seen Corbelli several times in the role of Taddeo, and he’s the gold standard. He’s got the face of a character actor from the Hollywood’s Golden Age, and he uses it as if he were knocking about in a Preston Sturges farce (not a bad match for this opera) even when he’s performing pull-ups and singing Rossini’s elaborate patter in a perfectly modulated baritone voice. Every detail of his characterization is perfectly judged, laugh-aloud funny yet tasteful, detailed, and attentive to text. I can only hope that younger baritones are studying his work, so that I can continue enjoying Italian comic opera when I’m in my dotage. It doesn’t get better than this.

When we first see Isabella’s lover, Lindoro, he’s Mustafà’s prisoner, condemned to hard labor. But — like all the men in this opera — he’s really in Isabella’s thrall, so that when he’s on a chain gang and supposed to be busting up rocks, he carves a statue of her instead. That this statue actually looks like Vivica Genaux is one of the luckier breaks in this production.

Definitely not a boy: Vivica Genaux
Photo by Harry Heleotis©

It must be difficult to find a standby for her, since Serban’s interpre­ta­tion of Isabella is so finely tailored to Genaux’s measure. Slinking around in an evening gown, with a long black wig (almost Bettie Page-style) that makes her look even slinkier, she’s almost comically sexy — which is of course Serban’s intention — and she exults in the character. (It’s probably a refreshing change of pace for a singer who so often has to play soldier-boys.)

I could have used more brio in “Pensa alla Patria,” in which Isabella exhorts her friends to stick with the plan in order to return home: after all, it’s part of the interplay of stereotype and tongue-in-cheek nation­al­ism that makes this opera soar, and some other Isabellas’ account of the aria has made me want to apply for Italian citizenship.

Elsewhere, however, Genaux digs deep into Isabella’s music, offering a fiery rainbow of interpretation: the dark timbre of her voice suggests Isabella’s indomitable temperament, while caressing phrases convey her seductive powers, and pyrotechnics testify to the character’s con­stant­ly plotting mind. The part affords her more variety than she finds in some of the Baroque composers that are her other specialty. Indeed, it was Genaux’s recording of Rossini arias that introduced me to this artist and first won me over, and it’s good to witness her back on ground that’s so consistently congenial to her: she seems to be enjoying herself tremendously, and her enthusiasm is contagious.

Have I mentioned that I’m Italian? Genaux & Brownlee
Photo: Opéra de Paris/Mirco Magliocca©

Brownlee is quickly becoming one of the most important tenors on the international scene, though my opportunities to hear him live have been few: in fact, this was the first time I’d seen him in a fully staged opera. Lindoro is a tough role in several ways: he has minimal lead-up to his first big aria, and thereafter, he’s seldom the focus of attention, mostly a pawn in the conflicting schemes of Mustafà (who wants to get rid of his wife by forcing Lindoro to marry her) and Isabella (who wants to rescue him).

Brownlee tossed off his solos, “Languir per un bella” and “Ah, come il cor di giubilo” (in Act II), with passionate character and apparent ease, his sound bright and ringing. A hardcore salsa-dancer, he’s excep­tion­al­ly nimble onstage, and he really got into the comedy of his big duet with Mustafà, as well as in the legendary septet that concludes Act I.

Keeping it real: Lawrence Brownlee
Photo by Dario Acosta©

It’s become tiresomely commonplace to compare Brownlee (favorably) with Another Rossini Tenor You’ve Heard So Much About — so I won’t do it. But what strikes me as remarkable about Brownlee is his ability to wed impeccable, almost otherworldly technique with a presence that’s completely human. (This comes across on recordings, too.) He may be singing a heroic warrior in extremis or a goofball in love, depending on the opera, but it’s always easy for the listener to identify with his character.

As Mustafà, Vinco started off a bit tentatively, but it didn’t take long for him to warm to the part, and soon he was strutting proudly and show­ing off the flexibility of his bass instrument. As his spurned wife, Elvira, Jaël Azzaretti revealed a bright voice and lively physicality: she is the first soprano I’ve seen who can (and does) strike yoga poses while singing coloratura. Riccardo Novaro proved an amiable, somewhat small-scale Haly; Cornelia Oncioiu as Zulma gave scant evidence of dramatic engagement, though she sang with admirable warmth.

Yep, still Italian.
From the 2004 cast, Bruce Sledge, Genaux, Simone Alaimo, and Corbelli
Photo: Opéra de Paris/Eric Mahoudeau©

Seated in the front row (!), I wasn’t in an ideal position with respect to the voices: I could see the singers projecting over my head and right past me into the auditorium, while none of their voices carried very strongly to the spot where I keep my ears. I was in an ideal position to admire the work of the orchestra, under conductor Maurizio Benini, who muttered “Chuk-a-chuk-a-chuk-a” in time with the music through­out both acts. The energy and imagination of Rossini’s orchestrations are always a marvel, and yet more so when you see that those delightful effects on the flute (for example) are assigned to just one musician.

Rossini would have approved, I think, of Benini’s evident enjoyment in the music, and I know he’d have approved of the musicians themselves, since the women of the orchestra of the Opéra de Paris are, without exception, very pretty. Surely this makes the music sound better, and yet what a pity that most people in the audience never get the chance to appre­ciate this additional contribution to the atmosphere of beauty and pleasure on hand.

Rossini himself

*NOTE: The only reason Isabella has come to Algiers is to rescue her boyfriend, Lindoro, and while she exploits Taddeo’s help, she never gives him any hope of winning her heart. Taddeo persists, never­the­less. It’s one of the most curious roles in opera, extraneous to the plot, really — we’ve already got one hapless suitor to laugh at, in the person of Mustafà, and Isabella doesn’t really need Taddeo in order to execute her plans. But he’s good company. Cuckolded from the get-go and disguised as Isabella’s uncle, Taddeo is like Dr. Schön and Schigolch in one person — only funny.

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