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Friday, September 30, 2016

Metropolitan Opera Preview: L'Italiana in Algeri

Rossini's culture-clash comedy returns, conducted by James Levine.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bass Ildar Abdrazakov is Mustafa in the Met revival of L'Italiana in Algeri.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
Although Il Barbiere di Siviglia is Rossini's best known comedy, L'Italiana in Algeri just might be his funniest. Ildar Abdrazakov is Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers opposite debut artists Marianna Pizzolato and René Barbera as the lovers Isabella and Lindoro. James Levine conducts the revival of this opera buffa rarity starring  in the title role. This is the first Met run of this opera since 2004.

What is L'Italiana in Algeri?
This is a broad, boisterous comedy about a boat-load of Italian sailors and one lovely titular girl  shipwrecked in Algiers on the north coast of Africa. She attracts the unwelcome attractions of the Bey (ruler) of the city who wants her for his harem. Using quick Bugs Bunny-like wits, she manages to effect an escape for herself, her beloved Lindoro and all of her shipmates by convincing her would-be suitor that he has what it takes to become a "real Italian"--the ability to eat copiously, sleep a long time and ignore his woman's infidelities.

Who's in the cast?
Five days before the premiere, the Met press office announced that Marianna Pizzolato will make her house debut in the challenging title role. She is a replacement for Elizabeth DeShong. As Mustafa (the Bey of Algiers) bass Ildar Abdrazakov has the chance to stretch his comic chops as the buffoonish Bey. In the Act II finale, his character is inducted into the Pappitaci, the "order" of men who do nothing but eat, sleep and ignore their women. Tenor René Barbara sings the high-flying part of Lindoro, Isabella's actual beloved.

Why should I go see this opera?
This is a screwball comedy about the culture clash between Christianity and Islam, laced with lots of great music and humor. Played at the break-neck pace of a Marx Brothers movie, the opera ends with the tableau of Mustafa stuffing himself with pasta for laughs. Just don't take it too seriously.

How's the production?
This is a very traditional staging from 1973, with sets and costumes by Jean-Pierre Ponelle. It was the first show that the French director and designer did for the Met. Mr. Ponelle's designs use the sandy colors and washed-out textures to recreate the feel of North Africa. There are lots of arches, floor-tiles and great costumes, like you'd expect from a vintage Met show.

When does the show open?
L'Italiana in Algeri opens Oct. 4 and runs through Oct. 29, when presumably the Met's prop department finally runs out of pasta.

Where do I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Which recording should I buy?
There are  number of good recordings of this opera on the market as it is a vehicle for a star mezzo who can handle the high-flying coloratura passages. Here are the two I've heard:

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Claudio Abbado (DG, 1988)
Abbado was a Rossini conductor par excellence having spearheaded the use of authentic editions of the composer's scores after decades of bastardization and editing. Here he has a very '80s cast with Agnes Baltsa (toward the end of her comet-like career) bass Ruggero Raimondi and tenor Frank Lopardo. Enzo Dara brings the comic relief as Taddeo, the Italian who betrays his comrades and joins Team Mustafa as the comedy develops.

Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne cond Jesus Lopez-Cobos (Teldec/WBC 1997)
This light-hearted recording is  the best Jennifer Larmore's cycle of Rossini comedies for the Teldec label in the 1990s. It's a studio recording but captures the feel and greasepaint of live theater, with round, involving sound that makes it feel like the singers are in the room with you. A stellar cast includes tenor Raul Gimenez (past his prime) as Lindoro and Met veteran John Del Carlo as the hapless Bey.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.