Rossini: L’Italana in Algeri
Today is Austria’s state holiday, so as a good patriot I donned my Tracht and went to the opera for a rare mid-afternoon performance at the Staatsoper (with one nice ticket front row on the balcony amazingly available). Rossini‘s Italian in Algiers provided sufficient amusement, in a 30-year-old dusted-off staging by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.
While I appreciated the simplicity of the staging, I was never quite sure Ponelle understood the opera. The main part of the set remained the same throughout – representing an imaginary Ottoman palace in North Africa – with additional scenery (or curtains) added and subtracted throughout. This concept worked to put the focus on the singers, which was fine. The problem was that the blocking was too static. The music, and the absurdities of the plot, call for farce, and Ponnelle included sight-gags which demonstrated his awareness of the musical surroundings. But mostly the characters stood there and rolled their eyes at each other (wasn’t that Mozart’s criticism of Italian opera drama – fat people standing at opposite ends of the stage rolling their eyes at each other and calling it love? But while often true of Italian opera, Rossini above all others in Italy understood crazy farce and his works lend themselves to hammed-up and active on-the-move comedy).
One nice touch Ponnelle added (although I don’t know if it was intentional) was the use of screened boxes overhanging courtyards typical in Islamic architecture. These allowed women to stay modestly out of sight but able to observe the world of the men below through the ornate wooden slits. In this staging, the men often hid in the boxes to observe the women, flipping the Islamic practice. And this opera indeed was about a clever Italian woman who imposes her rule on and dominates men – the whole plot of the opera, then, is a cultural inversion. If this is what Ponnelle meant by this aspect of the staging, then good on him. It’s just that there was very little else in the staging to suggest this was intentional.
The mostly-young cast negotiated Rossini’s colorful music aptly – with Luca Pisaroni standing out as Mustafà. Antonino Siragusa as Lindoro took some time to warm up, but ultimately showed a strong voice. Bryony Dwyer (Elvira), Manuel Walser (Haly), Elena Maximova (Isabella), and Orhan Yildiz (Taddeo) all had their moments. The real music nuance came from the pit, where the orchestra gave a completely idiomatic interpretation of Rossini’s music – making me almost want to sing and dance along – in proportions that never overwhelmed and perfectly supported the singers, a credit to conductor Evelino Pidò as well.