Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Opera San Jose: Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers

Nathan Stark as Mustafa, Lisa Chavez as Isabella. Photos by Pat Kirk.
November 15, 2014

With its reputation for tragedy and pathos, opera, at times, is sorely underrated as a comic form. Which is too bad, because there’s nothing like laughing one’s butt off while being bathed in elegant music. This was most definitely the experience of Opera San Jose’s brilliantly Marxist (as in Marx Brothers) presentation of Rossini’s early-career smash.

The setup of Angelo Anelli’s libretto is tremendously clever. The Turkish Bey, Mustafà, is tired of his submissive harem and wants one of those irresistible Italian girls (a nice play to Rossini’s home audience). Giving his right-hand man, Haly (Silas Elash), the assignment to find him one of these girls, he adds, “If you have not found one in six days, I shall have you impaled on a stake.” Conveniently enough, an Italian ship wrecks nearby, supplying the local pirates with all kinds of treasure (including the Mona Lisa!) and an actual Italian girl, Isabella, who just happens to be searching for her lost lover, Lindoro, who just happens to be a slave belonging to Mustafà. Got all that?

It’s almost as if stage director Michael Shell sized up all this silliness and said, “I will milk this thing until someone dies laughing.” He began by outfitting his men’s chorus in roly-poly fat suits that jiggle with every move. The suits provided a background of snickers and chuckles all night. Much of the remaining laughter was generated by bass Nathan Stark, who plays the Mustafà with a stout voice and an impressive package of comic skills: pratfalls, dance moves, striptease, hisses, gasps, barks, and a series of rubberized facial expressions that make one susect that he is, in fact, a cartoon character. Matthew Hanscom gives a similar performance as Isabella’s feckless chaperone Taddeo, employing a blinding grin that seems to take over half his face.

Michael Dailey as Lindoro.
The vocal highlight comes from tenor Michael Dailey, a former OSJ resident artist whose lyric voice has become even more lyric, particularly in Lindoro’s introductory cavatina, “Languir per una bella” and the patter duet with Stark, “Se inclinassi a prender moglie.” With his striking looks and calm demeanor, Dailey also gives the opera, in Lindoro, an eye in the storm of wackiness. (A second “eye” is Mustafà’s main girl, Elvira, played with elan by soprano Isabella Ivy.)

The strong spine of the story is Isabella, a particularly strong female character (and a precursor to Rosina from Barber). OSJ has just the right performer in mezzo Lisa Chavez, who possesses a powerful, agile instrument (exhibiting beautiful clarity in her bel canto ornamentations), and that ineffable ability to command the stage. She also projects that irresistible quality of the girl-next-door who nonetheless knows how to engineer a seduction.

The great reward of this cast is how they work together, and the hilarious tableaux constructed by director Shell. Taking one of Rossini’s standard sanity-questioning choruses, he turns Mustafà into the centerpiece of one of those complicated German clocks, the other characters taking turns striking him like a bell. In another, he sets them all adrift on a rolling couch, pushed across violent seas by a trio of roly-polys. And the ceremony for awarding Mustafà the title of Papataci – flying pasta everywhere! – is so crazy I’m going to make you see it yourself.

Matthew Hanscom as Taddeo.
Steven Kemp’s set design is based mostly on painted flats with interwoven Turkish patterns, but equipped with enough secret openings for an episode of Laugh-In. Ming Luke led the orchestra in a particularly breezy performance (breezy being a particularly Rossinian quality), accentuated by the fetching flute motif of the overture. It was also fun to follow the recitatives. Veronika Agranov-Dafoe is so in tune with her singers that the harpsichord seems like an extra character, commenting on the action. The costumes, designed by John Lehmeyer, run along the lines of a Perils of Pauline episode, which is vastly fitting to the story.

Through November 30, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $51-$111, 408/437-4450 www.operasj.org

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year critic and author of the novel Operaville, available at Amazon.com.

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