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