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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Opera Review: A State of Turban Decay

The Met revives L'Italiana in Algeri.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Veiled innuendo: Ildar Abdrazakov (left) mugs for Marianna Pizzolatto in the Met's
revival of L'Italiana in Algeri. Photo © 2016 
From Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail to John Adams' The Death of Klinghofferthe Muslim world has long been fertile ground for opera composers. On Tuesday night, the Metropolitan Opera revived L'Italiana in Algeri, a Rossini comedy that treats the efforts of an Algerian bey (ruler) to recruit an Italian girl for his harem as the broadest possible farce. The opera marked James Levine's first performance in the Met pit in his new role of Music Director Emeritus, a role he embraced last season.

Written way back in 1813, L'Italiana has the potential to be an uncomfortable work. Its libretto (and the Met's vintage 1973 staging) is loaded with clichés about Muslim culture. There are endless jokes about the threat of impalement, a leading man in brown-face and a chorus of eunuchs that sing while flagellating their ruler's sex slaves. This handsome, old-fashioned production was amped up with gaudy slapstick routines, led by the giddy (at times, too giddy) performance of Ildar Abdrazakov as Mustafà, the hapless, love-struck ruler of Algiers.

Although he is no stranger to comic roles, this performance let Mr. Abdrazakov express himself both as a singer and as a clown. The Russian bass seemed to relish the ridiculous costumes (an enormous turban, balloon pants and even (in one scene) a black, hairy chest wig.) He capered, simpered and mugged behind the other singers, engaging in flying leaps, heel-clicks and other bits of comic business. In one scene, he broke out the Swim, the Batusi and then moonwalked across the stage. (He drew the line at twerking, but this was only opening night.) He sang too, putting his firm bass through Rossini's nimble patter, only to maul the finale with some unnecessary gargling and yodeling.

The thin plot of L'Italiana revolves around the Bey's plan to ditch his wife and marry an Italian girl. This is the heroine Isabella, who can make the Bey knock-kneed with a glance. And yet, mezzo Marianna Pizzolatto (a late replacement for Elizabeth DeShong who was dismissed by James Levine at an early rehearsal) lacked that knockout quality. In her old-fashioned, heavy costumes (designed for Marilyn Horne) Ms. Pizzolatto seemed more motherly than sensual. Her high-and-tight mezzo hit the notes correctly, but there was a lack of sparkle to the performance. One wondered why all the men in the cast went ga-ga whenever she was onstage, and why Mr. Levine thought her to be so ideal for this part.

Tenor René Barbera gave a stellar performance as Lindoro, Isabella's beloved who is also Mustafà's captive. In his house debut, the singer wowed the audience with his long Act I aria "Ah come il cor di giubilo". He did it the old-fashioned way, standing downstage by the prompter's box and lifting his voice above the stave for a series of dazzling high As and Bs. He stayed in the celestial region for "Languir per una bella",  the grueling cabaletta that follows immediately after, drawing waves of approval from the house. His shorter Act II aria was just as impressive, and he drew the loudest approval from the audience at the evening's end.

Character tenor Nicola Alaimo made a meal of Taddeo, Isabella's elderly companion who gets recruited (much against his will) in the role of Kaimakan (a kind of religious scholar) by an eager Mustafà. His agile instrument blended in the ensembles and his very physical comic business with Mr. Abdrazakov drew genuine belly laughs. Baritone Dwayne Croft added to the onstage insanity as Haly, the Bey's overseer. His character revolves around the aforementioned impalement jokes, but he made the most of his opportunities. Soprano Ying Fang impressed in the comprimario role of Elvira, the Bey's much-put-upon wife, but she sang with beauty and grace.  The Met chorus engaged in the comic business gleefully even donning Auguste clown makeup (complete with noses and red wigs) for the wacky Act II finale.

Mr. Levine received a wave of warm applause when he revealed himself at his specially-built motorized podium. Then the overture started, given a watery, chamber-like texture that was quickly swallowed up in  the vast auditorium. The conductor seemed at sea in the hard-charging Act I finale, falling behind the singers. Gathered at the lip of the stage and performing the various silly onomatopoeias that the libretto calls for, they seemed more intent on following the prompter. The second act finale was better, saved by some truly funny stage business involving Mr. Abdrazakov, munching through a large quantity of spaghetti marinara. In this scene, at least he didn't garnish it with ham. 

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