Cher Public

Period piece

italianaWhile Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of L’Italiana in Algeri for the Met remains steadfastly ignorant of postcolonial theory, it at least provides one with a distinct pleasure: the opportunity to hear some delightful music. 

Fortunately, last night’s performance of the opera affirmed this claim with world class musicianship—not only from two debuting artists (Marianna Pizzolato and René Barbera), but from the more seasoned members of the company as well, including the conducting of emeritus James Levine.

Among its virtues, L’Italiana provides ample opportunities for singers to showcase their virtuosity. With a plethora of difficult passages, the music’s technical demands are an inherent aspect of the piece’s appeal. On this front, the opera more than succeeds in its mission, charming its audience with bombastic vocal pyrotechnics. However, despite this successful component, it’s within the opera’s convoluted plot that one might become easily confused, irritated, and disengaged.

When Mustafà, the Bey of Algiers, grows weary of his wife Elvira, he casts her off onto his slave Lindoro, and pursues instead an “Italian” woman. When Isabella, the eponymous heroine, is shipwrecked onto the shores of Algiers, Mustafà believes he has found his new wife. However, unknown to the Bey, Isabella is actually in search of Lindoro, whom she knows from her life in Italy. And soon, Mustafà falls victim to the tricky machinations of Isabella, who is determined to rescue her beloved Lindoro, along with a whole group of displaced Italians.

In any event, the complex narrative is subservient to Rossini’s music, much of which showcases a spirited and talented cast. Pizzolato made a noteworthy debut in the role of Isabella, replacing an ailing Elizabeth Deshong. Pizzolato’s mezzo-soprano was a nimble instrument: her coloratura was sparkling and clear, and her voice had a wonderfully even quality, indefatigably expressive.

This was especially evident during her “Pensa alla patria,” which managed to inspire Italian nationalism even in me, despite my left-leaning skepticism. But more importantly, Pizzolato was a warmly charismatic artist—a quality necessary in order for the character to function successfully within the plot.

The other singer to make his house debut last night was Barbera, whose flexible, ringing tenor signaled the arrival of a star. As Lindoro, Barbera brought a vigorous, voluminous sound to Rossini’s difficult vocal writing, much of which he surmounted with exquisite ease; and his unfussy, confident demeanor onstage was a welcomed respite from the zany narrative.

Of special note as well was Ying Fang’s Elvira, who avoided cliché and shtick in favor of a light touch and a silvery soprano. Despite Elvira’s retrograde domestic role, Fang managed to create a more profound character than the one-dimensional prescription found in Angelo Anelli’s libretto.

It was a pleasure, as well, to see Dwayne Croft again at the house, this time in the supporting role of Haly, captain of the pirates. As usual, he provided a clean, reliable baritone, and a fully formed concept for what might otherwise have been a mere stock character.

In contrast, Ildar Abdrazakov’s Mustafà chewed the scenery to excess, pushing the buffoonery of the Bey beyond the limits of taste. While his singing displayed a resonant sound and rock-solid technique, his broadly sketched caricature of the Muslim Mustafà veered far too close toward brown-face for comfort.

In fact, race was something of an elephant in the room. Ponnelle’s production, created for Marilyn Horne in 1973, was deeply unsettling by contemporary standards; which is to say, its tone-deaf approaches to race and post-colonial politics were a bit difficult to swallow, especially amid the anti-Islamic rhetoric which has saturated our current media throughout this country’s recent election cycle.

True, Ponnelle’s staging engaged one visually; but the director’s exoticism of the Islamic world (as seen through the lens of Italian nationalism) seemed a bit creepy, if not downright racist. Indeed, the opera’s plot inevitably took something of a colonialist, Euro-centric stance on a clash between cultures. This was a result of the specific time and place in which L’italiana was conceived. But while the opera’s text and context were unavoidable, the inability of the production to investigate, complicate, and undermine such notions was disturbing.

This is not to say that the opera itself should be removed from the repertory. However, in light of the libretto’s more unsavory aspects, I would ultimately argue for a new production at the Met, one that takes the more racist components of L’italiana into account, pushing against the assumptions of both European history and Rossini’s opera.

While Ponnelle’s stagecraft was remarkable, possessing a kinetic vitality on its own terms, I believe that L’Italiana is capable of bolder gestures: dramatic stances that fully realize and acknowledge the text’s shortcomings, while simultaneously celebrating its musical derring-do.

Photo: Ken Howard

  • La Cieca

    Our Own JJ is mostly in agreement with the observant Mr. James:

    http://observer.com/2016/10/its-a-womans-world-the-met-revives-rossinis-italiana/

    • Porgy Amor

      “[Abdrazakov] lost points for overplaying the comedy.” As he did last time around as Figaro. I know he did a lot of this sort of role in early years (Met debut as Masetto), but these days it seems when he has a comedic role, he stumbles into all the traps. Like, you know, “After all those Igors and Filippos and Attilas, now I’m going to have FUN! Isn’t this FUN? Are you having FUN yet? Well, something is coming up in the next scene that’s going to be even more FUN!”

      • Gualtier Maldè

        Love me some Ildar but the boy does need to be reined in.

        When the Met revived “Italiana” years ago for Borodina he was the Mustafa back then (Olga and Ildar were married at the time). Mustafa sings his first scene in some sort of Turkish bath contraption -- a waist high square box with a door. The director got a low laugh by having a previously hidden “naked” (flesh colored bra and panties) female supernumerary emerge from the bath when Mustafa later opened the door exiting the bath. The suggestion was that Mustafa always had his concubines at hand.

        Ildar went even lower by miming an orgasm (a la Meg Ryan in “Sleepless in Seattle”) moaning his way through the recitative in the dialogue before exiting the bath suggesting that he had been receiving fellatio from the hidden female supernumerary while the whole scene was going on.

  • aulus agerius

    I’m glad PCJ is not in charge. It’s a comic opera ferchrisake!

    • Gustave Portelance

      Some people see racism everywhere, politically correct freaks !
      *g

    • La Cieca

      YEAH! When it’s funny, racism is a good thing!

      • aulus agerius

        Farce (a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations) has been a popular staple of western entertainment for at least 2000 years and now someone wants to throw it out. I still say I’m glad “PC” James doesn’t get to call the shots.

        • La Cieca

          I’m not sure exactly what your ox is, but how about a hilarious farce about money-grubbing Jews? Or one about simple-minded Negroes who get all a-skeered of ghosts?

          • aulus agerius

            OK, you win. Let’s sterilize it so it’s fit for consumption by others and trot it out to play before even more empty seats.

            • La Cieca

              Answer the question. Would you find farces based on the premises I suggested funny? Would you think it is a good idea to perform these works uncritically?

              You foes of “PC” tend to think in such (pardon the expression) black and white terms its impossible to guess what your your real motivation might be in these cases.

            • Armerjacquino

              Sorry, are you saying it’s impossible to sell tickets/ entertain an audience without being racist?

        • Armerjacquino

          I think that if you hear ‘let’s not be racist’ as ‘let’s ‘throw out’ all farce’ then I’m glad you don’t call the shots either.

  • Rosina Leckermaul

    I don’t know where Mr. James was sitting, but in the upper reaches of the house where the sound is usually excellent, we lost a lot of Mme. Pizzolatto’s lower notes. And, yes. Abdrazakov did everything but moon the audience.

    • Lindoro Almaviva

      I would welcome that and I have a feeling there’s several of us who would stand with our cameras at the ready for the rising f that moon.

  • Desert Island Girl

    A more historically accurate L’Italiana staging would take the whole Barbary slave trade more seriously and less as comedy, I guess.

    • La Cieca

      I wonder if perhaps there could be a production in which the Bey’s court was played as modern, more or less Westernized and only Mustafa himself was (for whatever egocentric reasons of his own) a deliberate stereotype of the European notion of the “fierce Barbary pirate” type. Because he’s a dictator, everyone has to follow his whims, which are carefully delineated as purely personal idiosyncracies.

      The denouement could then be played as a bloodless coup, perhaps led by the women of the court, inspired by Isabella’s example. The departure of the Italians could be accomplished with the blessing of Elvira, the interim leader of the government after Mustafa is properly chastised for his abuse of power.

      All this I think could be accomplished within the text and music of the piece, and without compromising the comedy.

      • Desert Island Girl

        I would watch that--I think the focus on the women of the court is a strong hook to hang the comedy on.

      • Some director in Berlin will probably soon do something like that, only with Mustafa got up as Erdogan.

  • Krunoslav

    It’s not a question of ‘being PC’-- the way the chorus of eunuchs is depicted throughout is truly disgusting, racist the way cartoons of the 40s were racist, and RESOLUTELY unfunny. I too could not believe that in this age of Trumpery no one had though to clean this up-- save that that was true of ENTFHURUNG last season. If Jews or African-Americans were presented in like fashion the place would explode in boos.

    I would take issue with describing Pizzolatio’s voice as evenly produced: the high notes, when they were there, tended to blanch in quality. Good singer, though.

    Ildar all but put a blinking lampshade on his head-- often upstaging his colleagues with his antics.

  • Cygnet

    For a historical look at how Ottoman power affected the opera stage it might be worth reading the new book “The Singing Turk” by Prof Larry Wolff.

  • grimoaldo2

    What struck several of us in the live chat about the work itself (not aspects of the production which of course we were not seeing) was how good humoured and good natured it is about what must have been a terrifying experience of being kidnapped and held in a foreign country and culture. It happened quite often at that time, in a footnote to his epic poem “Don Juan” Lord Byron wrote
    “Note: this is a fact. – A few years ago a man engaged a company for some foreign theatre –
    embarked them at an Italian port – and carrying them to Algiers sold them all. – One of the
    women returned from her captivity – I heard sing – by a strange coincidence – in Rossini’s opera
    of “L’Italiana in Algeri” at Venice. in the beginning of 1817.”

    • Good for you Grimoaldo2. I was in the chat anonymously for half hour or so. You were the only one who understood what was going on in the opera.One person given to grandiose pronouncements said that “pappataci” was a nonsense word. I, masked, pointed out that it was in fact an imperative sentence, noun and verb: papa and taci. It means of course “Daddy, shut up”. The added “p” is a typical Italian ploy to add a funny plosive to the word (but “pappa” can also be an alternative spelling of “papa”.) My explanation was met with hostility. But you went on to explain as the text does that a “pappataci” is an old man who sleeps and eats and keeps his mouth shut. That is actually sung in the fast, amusing canon by Lindoro, the cicisbeo, Taddeo, and Mustafa, who has just been “awarded” the title of “pappataci”. Levine dragged this of course, cued the entrances erratically. None of the chat participants, including our “expert” noticed.

      Oh, and what is that word, “cicisbeo”? Do you think our venomous pundit knows what that means? Taddeo describes himself as a cicisbeo. But what is it?

      Well, in 18th century Italy with equivalents in France and Spain (for the millennials that’s the 1700s) this was a person who often figured in marriage contracts or agreements signed by the fathers of young ladies with such men. Well born women did not go out unaccompanied. So a cicisbeo was found as an escort. This was a somewhat older man, usually although not always of private means (in those contracts an allowance is set aside for a man to play this role) who accompanied the respectable wife or lady on her rounds.

      In comedies this role was sent up as a silly fop who fussed over the lady. In life, “cicisbeo” often connoted a gay man who in the earlier twentieth century (for millennials I mean 1920-1950) was often called a “walker”. Society dames had male walkers who were available to go to social events, concerts, plays and operas, relieving a husband who was either busy or uninterested. Most (though perhaps not all) were gay.

      Cary Grant for example when he was known as Archie Leech worked as a “walker”. One of the respectable and distinguished women he accompanied to operas, cultural events and dinner parties was the great singer Lucrezia Bori (who was gay).

      Society organized events around couples, not around single people, or couples of the same sex. Cary was quite popular in this role, which he played between his stage roles — his acting career proceeded fitfully and he often needed a “day job” (or an evening job). Mae West in New York ran a service pairing young actors with older married, single, or widowed women who were still socially active. Young female performers, like the young men, were usually well spoken, mannerly and attractive and escorted older but still socially active men, either single, divorced or widowers. It was not expected that sex would occur although sometimes it did. Also older men at dinner parties noticed the young men who were escorting ladies and sometimes discreetly hooked up with them.

      (Somerset Maugham did exactly the same thing, and although he passed for straight and was indeed bi-sexual in his younger days, just as the men he met while escorting ladies passed as straight or were bi-sexual, sexual liaisons resulted. Maugham mentions all this in his diaries.)

      Archie, name changed to Cary in Hollywood, made a success and was cast in Mae West’s first picture. He turned it down, saying he thought he was wrong for the part. Mae who of course knew him well asked for a meeting. He agreed to be in the picture. It’s more likely that she promised to say nothing of his earlier “career” in New York, as opposed to blackmailing him.

      That Taddeo is as close as we get to someone explicitly identified as gay in Italian opera is signified by his giggling at inappropriate moments. The word itself seems to have originated in onomatopoeia — to suggest sibilant whispering (the Italian word for a whisper, sussuro, is similar). The sibilance in pronunciation also suggests a sign of effeminacy. In reality a cicisbeo often was able to offer young men of his acquaintance access to a pretty, connected married lady in the market for a lover. His fee might be a fling with that young man. A cicisbeo might also be the walker of a well born single young woman, who again did not go out or travel alone.

      For the idiots who are often opera lovers, and some publish “reviews” these things aren’t important. Who cares what anything means? But an art work is an accumulation of details which function as signifiers of specific behaviors. They locate the characters in a work in a social milieu which audiences for whom the opera was written would have recognized.

      I suppose I list these small things because I see many problems with the arguments advanced here. First, there is the underlying reality. “Opera” is a dead art form and a niche entertainment. It is not vital, powerful or important in America in any way. The few people who are “fans” are mostly older if not elderly. If a small number of younger people (let’s say people under thirty five) have become interested, they are not flooding but trickling in. This seems like a very odd terrain on which to fight the culture wars.

      There is among opera lovers typically a vast ignorance of everything but what was a hit or miss imprinting through records. Not having at least a reasonable understanding of the libretto and what the various transactions mean, not having some sense of the language even if they don’t speak it, having no response to the cues in the music and what they add to meaning, not caring about music at all but responding solely to the grandiose geschrei of “opera singers” does not lead even to intelligent description let alone cultural insight.

      Memorizing the noises from records and CDs of a dated, dead rep, with most “standard” operas seventy to three hundred years old provides no equivalence at all to what we are living through today. Only new work can express and dramatize what is happening in our streets, with refugees, with the suppression of millions and the slaughter of millions more, of the continued struggles of first world women for respect, equal pay and opportunity, and the on going trafficking of poor women and girls, with evolving understanding of gender as a physical marker and as a role.

      To foist these issues on operas that were written on a different planet than the one we inhabit strikes me as phony quasi intellectual bullshit. Yet “opera lovers” hate new or even recent operas. They are not looking for the transformative experience, the shocking, sudden revelation, the potential for life changing insight that art ideally offers and they hate risk, but all art is a risk — they like something resembling a beloved sit-com in syndication, seen innumerable times, with no threat, danger nor even the need to pay attention. One might investigate the grotesque elderly scum at Opera-L to see what animates these decaying corpses.

      Go and organize, Clement James, fight for a better world, because for certain you will be living in it when I am not (and let that be as soon as possible). Sitting lazily back, and making insipid pronouncements and false equivalences is an onanistic enterprise. Of course you hate art, as everyone your age does. Growing up in a TV culture, inundated with mindless pop, you can’t tolerate “make believe”, “let’s pretend”, you are unable to understand contexts, to exist for the length of an opera or play in an “as if” universe. You see everything as propaganda or documentary and are frightened of fantasy, imagination, fiction. Oh, how much easier is jejune, simple minded and uninformed judgments and dismissals, what pleasure the warm bath of complacency bestows. And typical of your generation, you can opine without thought, knowledge, are deaf to irony, you think that “buzz words” mean something as opposed to being stupid cliches that will date as quickly as you will.

      And let me be clear: of course productions that are coarse, trade in racist, nasty, or stupid presentations of material should be described as such. And some of those familiar operas are bad art. Turandot isn’t offensive because it is “anti-Asian”, it takes place in “never-never land” to which “Peking” has been appliqued as a title. But it is an empty, noisy, derivative wad of junk without a human core. Even Puccini realized that, which is why he lived two years without being able to finish it. And so on… I now must find some sal volatile…

    • Good for you, Grimoaldo2. I was in the chat anonymously for half hour or so. You were the only one who understood what was going on in the opera. One person given to grandiose pronouncements said that “pappataci” was a nonsense word.

      I, masked, pointed out that it was in fact an imperative sentence, noun and verb: papa and taci. It means of course “Daddy, shut up”. The added “p” is a typical Italian ploy to add a funny plosive to the word (but “pappa” can also be an alternative spelling of “papa”.) My explanation was met with hostility. But you went on to explain as the text does that a “pappataci” is an old man who sleeps and eats and keeps his mouth shut. That is actually sung in the fast, amusing canon by Lindoro, the cicisbeo, Taddeo, and Mustafa, who has just been “awarded” the title of “pappataci”. Levine dragged this of course, cued the entrances erratically. None of the chat participants, including our “expert” noticed. But I recall you did.

      Oh, and what is that word, “cicisbeo”? Do you think our venomous pundit knows what that means? Taddeo describes himself as a cicisbeo. But what is it?

      Well, in 18th century Italy with equivalents in France and Spain (for the millennials that’s the 1700s) this was a man who often figured in marriage contracts. Also there are written agreements signed by the fathers of as yet unwed young ladies to cover their dealings with such men. Well born women did not go out unaccompanied. So a cicisbeo was found as an escort. This was a somewhat older man, often although not always of private means (in those contracts an allowance is set aside for a man to play this role) who accompanied the respectable wife or lady on her rounds.

      In comedies this role was sent up as a silly fop who fussed over the lady. In life, “cicisbeo” often connoted a gay man who in the earlier twentieth century (for millennials I mean 1920-1950) was often called a “walker”. Society dames had male walkers who were available to go to social events, concerts, plays and operas, relieving a husband who was either busy or uninterested. Most (though perhaps not all) were gay.

      Cary Grant for example in his New York days when he was known as Archie Leech worked as a “walker”. One of the respectable and distinguished women he accompanied to operas, cultural events and dinner parties was the great singer Lucrezia Bori (who was gay).

      Society organized events around couples, not around single people, or couples of the same sex. Archie/Cary was quite popular in this role, which he played between his stage roles — his stage career proceeded fitfully and he often needed a “day job” (or an evening job). Mae West in New York ran a service pairing young actors with older married, single, or widowed women who were still socially active. Young female performers, like the young men, were usually well spoken, mannerly and attractive and escorted older but still socially active men, either single, divorced or widowers. It was not expected that sex would occur although sometimes it did. Also older men at dinner parties noticed the young men who were escorting ladies and sometimes discreetly hooked up with them.

      (Somerset Maugham did exactly the same thing, and although he passed for straight and was indeed bi-sexual in his younger days, just as the men he met while escorting ladies passed as straight or were bi-sexual, gay sexual liaisons resulted. Maugham mentions all this in his diaries.)

      Archie, name changed to Cary Grant in Hollywood, made a success and was cast in Mae West’s second picture, “She done him wrong”. He turned it down, saying he thought he was wrong for the part. Mae who of course knew him well asked for a meeting. He agreed to be in the picture. She suggested that she tell the papers that she had caught sight of a young actor on the Paramount lot and said to a casting person, “if he can talk I’ll take him.” This placated him. It was not only Cary who had a lot to hide about his life in NY as Archie, Mae had plenty to hide, too. Her movies, which she either wrote entirely, or wrote her scenes, made her a fortune (his whole cynical take on the business made him probably the richest actor in movies of the time. He was one of the first actors who wasn’t already famous who became an “independent contractor” after he served out his initial contract. Although he didn’t produce or develop properties he got a piece of his films’ international profits.)

      That Taddeo is as close as we get to someone explicitly identified as gay in Italian opera is signified by his giggling at inappropriate moments. The word itself seems to have originated in onomatopoeia — to suggest sibilant whispering (the Italian word for a whisper, sussuro, is similar). The sibilance in pronunciation is also a sign of effeminacy. In reality a cicisbeo often was able to offer young men of his acquaintance access to a pretty, connected married lady in the market for a lover. His fee might be a fling with that young man (Da Ponte seems to have played both roles, “walker” and young man on the lookout for flings with girls in Venice, after he was evicted from the Priesthood. He learned he was to be arrested in Venice for his sexual behavior — he was involved with a highly cultured but broke brother and sister who preyed on the wealthy — and fled to the first place he could get to with limited means — Vienna.) A cicisbeo might also be the walker of a well born single young woman, who again did not go out or travel alone.

      For opera lovers these things aren’t important. Who cares what anything means? But an art work is an accumulation of details which function as signifiers of specific behaviors. They locate the characters in a work in a social milieu which audiences for whom the opera was written would have recognized.

      I suppose I list these small things because I see many problems with the arguments advanced here (not against bad or “dated” productions, which now seem racist. But after all, Ponnelle’s production is from November, 1973. That’s 43 years ago!)

      • “Who cares…” thank you for another super post and something to think about on today’s long flight.

      • QuantoPainyFakor

        Thank you so much for this wonderful post teaching us so much about cicisbeatura! Really worth keeping.

      • grimoaldo2

        Many thanks, revered MrsJC, not just for your kind words about me, but for another invaluable post with your unique blend of historical erudition, deep insight into the work under discussion and wonderful insider gossip with relation to Hollywood’s Golden Age. I say again, I hope you are keeping memoirs or writing a book with all this in it, it is too precious to be lost to posterity.

      • DonCarloFanatic

        Thanks, MrsJC, for this information. I’d not known being a cicisbeo was ever a formalized, contracted job description. That explains why an unmarried Italian girl would be traveling with a man unrelated to her. Given Ms. Horne’s matronly appearance when I saw the opera in 1981, I assumed her character was a widow, and thus free to choose her companion as well as sail the Mediterranean. (I was a lot younger then.)

        While checking the date, I found a NY Times review from that year excoriating the Ponnelle production. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/02/03/arts/opera-marilyn-horne-in-l-italiana-in-algeri.html

      • aulus agerius

        Mrs. JC’s post appeared in “+comments feed” but no where else 24 hrs earlier. Something with Disqus I guess. I continue to experience the inferface with Disqus as clunky -- very slow loading for one thing esp on phone and tablet.

      • Benedetta Funghi-Trifolati

        Great and informative post (as usual), MrsJohn Claggart. “Compiacente a’ colloqui del cicisbeo che a dame maturate porgeva qui la mano!”

  • Thank you for the review, Patrick. I have not seen this production. By the sounds of it, there are numerous bits of staging that could or should be downplayed or removed altogether. But I’m puzzled by this entire review being framed by the inability of Ponnelle’s decades-old production to address these concerns for today’s audience.

    • DonCarloFanatic

      I suspect that the most outlandish aspects of the old production were deliberately kept just to emphasize that this is a farce. (Perhaps even the hamming it up by IA.) If the audience laughed, then that ploy worked. Making fantasy fun of a dangerous other is a good way to tamp down fear; it’s exactly what the U.S, did regarding Hitler before and during WWII. (“Der Fuhrer’s Face” and so on.)

      I saw this production with Marilyn Horne, and back then we thought it was hysterical. That was a long time ago. I wouldn’t mind seeing a successful harem revolt production--but that would be a very unlikely fantasy scenario also.

      • La Cieca

        But here’s the issue: the perceptions of both danger and otherness in this work are based on a circa 1800 mindset, which like all mindsets was informed by self-interest and prejudice. The cultural caricaturing presented in this work may have been understandable (if hardly forgivable) at the time the piece was written, but we have more information and especially a broader historical perspective now. So we don’t have the excuse Rossini and Anelli had of not knowing any better. To perform the piece strictly according to tradition amounts to a refusal to consider the racism of the work, a quality we can see clearly even if the original creators could not.

        • Luvtennis

          Word.

  • fletcher

    René Barbera is really a fantastic singer -- I’ve heard him a few times in Los Angeles and thought he nearly stole the show with a gorgeous “O blonde Cérès” at Troyens in San Francisco last summer. Glad to hear his Met debut was a success.

    • laddie

      He was also a very very fine Rodrigo in La Donna at Santa Fe a few years ago as was Pizzolato a very fine Malcolm. Santa Fe has deleted all of their old video clips for that La Donna I presume in deference to the Met using the same production.

  • Um … about to wade into some hot topics but I was saying in the chatroom that L’Italiana (and Abduction, and Il Turco, and the ballet Le Corsaire and a number of other works in the 19th century) turn a cultural and religious clash between East and West, Muslim and Christian into a comedy. The comedy is obviously very dated but overarching themes of these comedies:

    1. Kidnappings and other conflicts are amicably resolved
    2. Women are strong and resourceful
    and
    3. Relax everyone. It’s funny.

    If you compare it to the bellowing of Donald Trump or Brexit or the various other right-wing xenophobic parties that have cropped up around the world in response to the Middle Eastern refugee crisis … I’m really not sure a modern interpretation of a work like L’Italiana would be any more enlightened. I actually think it would stoke more xenophobia, racism and ignorance. I don’t think that 200 years later the West is any more enlightened or tolerant about different religions and cultures.

    Ponnelle’s approach looks dated today but again, I really don’t think that the 21st century is in a more enlightened place about these conflicts and that a “modern” approach wouldn’t be just as cringeworthy.

    • DonCarloFanatic

      You’re probably right, with the addendum that the East is no more enlightened or tolerant, either.

      Some of us prefer to laugh instead of cry, so if farce misses the boat for one segment of the audience, it probably still does hit the spot for another.

      • La Cieca

        “Mr. Watters, who responded to his critics on Twitter on Wednesday, said he considered himself ‘a political humorist’ and regretted that he had upset people. He said his interviews were meant to be taken as a lighthearted joke.”

        http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/07/business/media/fox-reporter-accused-of-racism-for-chinatown-interviews-on-trump-clinton-and-china.html

        • DonCarloFanatic

          Yikes. I’m not on board to defend that sort of crap.

          • Armerjacquino

            But once you say ‘well, some people didn’t like it, but others laughed’ you kind of are defending that kind of crap…

            • DonCarloFanatic

              Mustafa is a despot in an evil system who casually intends to dump his wife with another man and get a new slave girl--preferably an Italian--like she’s so much hunk of meat he’s ordering for dinner, and indeed like his wife is so much hunk of meat. I think we have to recognize that in this opera, we’re dealing with a person who is not the butt of colonial or economic or cultural racism, but who is in fact a powerful person whose intentions towards others are despicable by our standards and by many other systems’ standards, too, even if commonplace throughout the history of so-called civilization. That puts things in a very different light. Our Italian girl outwits him and makes him more humane and even sympathetic. I think it’s perfectly okay to laugh at a tyrant and get out from under his clutches. That TV interview thing is a completely different situation and it’s disgraceful.

            • Armerjacquino

              Yes, and the point is you can surely tell the story exactly as you’ve just recounted it without resorting to tired and nasty cultural stereotypes.

            • Luvtennis

              Dear DCF:

              I really wrestle with these issues. How do you square freedom of expression with empathy for those who might be offended or antagonized by the use of imagery that mocks (even humorously) ethnic, religious, or other “stereotypes?”

              Treat people as individuals. Full stop. We live in a world of 7 billion people who are interconnected in ways unimaginable even 20 years ago. The use of tropes and imagery that might have been ok in a homogeneous, isolated society is now likely to invite controversy and unhappiness while undermining whatever larger point is trying to be made.

              The truth is very few people like to have negative stereotypes aimed at them. And those stereotypes are inevitably wrong when applied to any given individual. So…. let’s just find a new way to be funny.

              Perhaps in 1000 years of egalitarianism and universal democracy, we can all start making fun of “groups” and cultures again. But for now, while stereotyping is STILL used as a tool for oppression, I think the practice deserves close scrutiny.

  • Armerjacquino

    Worth pointing out, I think, that this review criticises the *production*, not the opera; Mr James explicitly points out that the opera’s attitudes to race are a reflection of when it was written. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with suggesting that Ponnelle in 1973, and *certainly* whoever staff-directed this revival, should be aware of how our thinking about race has changed.

    Any production of anything, whether it intends to or not, inevitably reflects the society it is performed in much more than the one in which it was written. Look at the traditional Mozart productions of the last century, which tell us much more about the 1950s than the 1780s. I think it’s a cheap abdication of responsibility to say ‘well, it was a different time, so if we offend anyone it’s the 19th century’s fault’. As I’ve said, it’s perfectly possible to do a cracking production of ITALIANA without resorting to stereotype; isn’t it worth doing that, and expressing dismay when the stereotypes are placed front and centre?