Santa Fe Opera 1: Low Comedy
The Santa Fe Opera’s L’Italiana in Algeri – a revival of a production that first appeared in 2002 – managed to keep its audience amused for nearly its full length; but beneath its barrage of jazz hands, pelvic thrusts and synchronised dance moves there seemed to be a nervousness about the opera itself, a disbelief perhaps that anyone in the twenty-first century would find a work from the nineteenth century even remotely relatable. The production responded by doubling down on sight-gags, innuendos, and anything else that might guarantee an easy laugh, and what started as an excess of exuberance soon grew wearisome. L’Italiana may not equal the sophistication and emotional depth of, say, the Mozart-DaPonte operas, but surely it deserved a treatment of greater subtlety.
The revival was directed by Shawna Lucey based on a staging by Edward Hastings, and without having seen the original it was difficult to determine who was responsible for the reductive conception of the characters and the clownish behaviour from which they all seemed unable to escape. Visually there was nothing inelegant about the production, which had been lightly updated to the early-twentieth century: Isabella’s arrival came courtesy of a bi-plane crash instead of a shipwreck, but Algiers itself retained the kind of story-book assemblage of Islamic arcades, befezzed attendants and other Ottoman stereotypes that even Rossini’s audience would have recognised. The set, by Robert Innes Hopkins, featured a geometric expanse of desert fringed with swirling palms that hinged open into a pop-up-book version of Mustafà’s palace.
Yet if the production was aiming for fairy-tale, it ended up as cartoon. Mustafà especially was the model of an ineffectual ruler, forced to spend nearly the entire evening hubba-hubbaing around the stage in a way that hasn’t been current since the heyday of Jerry Lewis. There was no menace, and no sense of the absolute power that can make such a figure seem dangerous despite their buffoonery; even before Isabella arrived, we knew he didn’t stand a chance. Nor, for that matter, did Lindoro, who had been conceived as the romantic hero without additional qualities, nor the fussy Taddeo who alone seemed burdened by the notion that there might be greater emotional possibilities lurking in the libretto. Isabella, on the other hand, was so assured of her awesome powers over the male sex that the development of dramatic tension was reduced to almost nothing. We simply watched her plan unfold as described, with no sense of a hard-won victory over a worthy opponent.
Patrick Carfizzi (Taddeo), Craig Verm (Haly) and The Santa Fe Opera Chorus in Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri. Edward Hastings, original production. Shawna Lucey, revival director. Corrado Rovaris, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, July 2018. © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2018.
The dramatic void at the centre of the production was filled with a ceaseless parade of shimmying, mugging and suggestive gestures of every conceivable genre. At best it was vaguely amusing – seeing a chorus launch into anachronistic dance moves is kind of funny the first time – but at its most hyperactive it simply overwhelmed the vocal performances; and the harder it tried, the more overbearing it became. In Isabella’s speech promising freedom to the Italian slaves, the slaves tried to enliven the scene by pulling out an oversized Bialetti, a giant straw-covered bottle of Chianti, and a pizza – the Ottomans weren’t the only victim of cruel stereotyping – for no discernable purpose other than to generate an easy laugh at the expense of another culture; the fact that it got the laughs it was aiming for made it no less awkward. Beneath the gags there did not appear to be any definite idea of why the story was still worth telling. The confrontation between a modern independent woman and a powerful old-school egoist should have provided a wealth of satiric potential; instead the staging tried so hard to be ‘fun’ and ‘zany’ that one could only see the strain.
After a while one started to feel for the singers. Rossini’s florid vocal lines, even for a twenty-first century audience, can be a source of tremendous delight when performed well, but the overstuffed production too often forced the music to vie for our attention. Scott Conner, as Mustafà, had perhaps the evening’s most physically demanding role, and his total committment to the hapless Bey was impressive and even somewhat charming. Vocally he sounded a shade light for such an imposing character, but he made up for it in agility, especially in the opening scene and his duets with Lindoro and Isabella in the first act; he was convincingly flustered in the sneezing scene and suitably haughty, even while being duped, in the finale.
Daniela Mack (Isabella), Craig Verm (Haly) and The Santa Fe Opera Chorus in Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri. Edward Hastings, original production. Shawna Lucey, revival director. Corrado Rovaris, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, July 2018. © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2018.
Daniela Mack’s Isabella remained convincingly in control of the action for the entire evening. Her aria in the first act was animated by a great rhythmic focus, and her dressing aria in the second was nicely paced and suitably playful. While she clearly had the capacity for grandly projected top notes, they were deployed sparingly; more often she opted for a measured delivery that was energetic but rarely overstated. Jack Swanson was allowed to play Lindoro as a more conventional hero, even if one suspected that he too would be no match for Isabella. There was an ardent elegance in his slowly-paced first act aria, and he held his own in the crisp patter passages of his subsequent duet with Mustafà. Despite the efforts of the production, Patrick Carfizzi was able to bring nuance and depth to the figure of Taddeo; his voice had satisfying weight and slight warmth of tone, and his aria in the second act contained some of the evening’s most elegantly crafted lines.
Jack Swanson (Lindoro), Patrick Carfizzi (Taddeo), Scott Conner (Mustafa) and Daniela Mack (Isabella) in Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri. Edward Hastings, original production. Shawna Lucey, revival director. Corrado Rovaris, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, July 2018. © © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2018.
Conductor Corrado Rovaris, who guided the orchestra through a majestic Lucia di Lammermoor at last year’s festival, seemed less vigorous in his approach to Rossini. There were some unexpected choices of tempi and a curious reluctance, especially in the larger ensemble scenes, to engage with the wild dynamics and ebullient textures of the score; even in the climaxes, the orchestra retained a lean, compartmentalised sound at odds with the maestoso extravagance that one expects from Rossinian comedy. Yet there were also numerous inspired moments – the tightly controlled interplay of the singers and percussionists during the last part of the first act finale was deeply impressive – and a sense of purpose that kept the mood light and brisk throughout the evening.
Many of Rossini’s operas were tailored to please a specific audience – the comedies especially tend to value dazzling vocal showpieces over convincingly rendered drama – and in a way the Santa Fe opera’s production did an admirable job of capturing L’Italiana’s populist essence. But the broad comedy of the staging seemed content to exist in a world of its own, too busy chuckling at its own sense of humour to place itself reliably in the service of the music. It achieved its goal of entertaining the audience to be sure, but it did so at the expense of the opera’s potential for a more daring, more intelligent comedy.