A good performance of a Rossini opera buffa usually bubbles along merrily—from the opening chords of the usually jaunty overture to the thrilling ensemble finales, the audience expects to have a good time and to listen to some impressive vocal fireworks.

For years these opera buffas were the victims of disfiguring cuts, transpositions, and “performance traditions” but in the last 30 years or so there’s been a strong and steady push to present the works as written, with all the original arias back in place in their original keys, and to find singers who can do the fiendishly difficult music justice. The annual Rossini Festival in Pesaro has maintained its reputation as a place where Rossini’s works are presented with scrupulous musical scholarship, high production values, and top-tier Rossini singers.  

It’s depressing, then, to view this video of L’Italiana in Algeri, filmed at last year’s Rossini festival. The performance has so much going for it on paper that the flat, dull, unfunny results leave one’s head scratching. The production by Davide Livermore has a nice concept and visual appeal. The opera’s events are refashioned into some kind of James Bond parody, a la Austin Powers. Bey Mustafa is a sleazy Moroccan oil baron. Isabella first happens upon his fiefdom as he accidentally shoots a gun into the air and her plane crashes. The sets and costumes are a cartoonish send-up of 1970’s fashion. Lots of blond flip dos and polyester minidresses, as well as 60’s style TV’s, vacuum cleaners and helicopters keep the stage colorful and busy at all times.

Livermore’s direction certainly focuses on “colorful and busy” but not so much on funny. There’s always a lot of busy stuff happening onstage, but it’s not funny. He relies too much on visual sight gags: Lindoro and Isabella make their escape as Mustafa is pigging out on a huge cake. and during the “Pappataci” ensemble, Mustafa’s harem girls are wearing pig masks. Some 1960’s and 1970’s dances are incorporated into the opera. But comedy isn’t just about frantic stage business and colorful costumes and sets. It’s about timing. The singers themselves aren’t the types to ad-lib comedy or really cross the line from “amusing’ to “funny.”

The Pesaro festival has a history of inviting top-tier talent for their festivals, and also for being the launching pad of many prominent careers (Juan Diego Florez first made a splash in 1996 singing in Mathilde di Shabran at the festival). The cast assembled for this performance are all “nice” without being much more than that. Anna Goryachova (Isabella) is a striking looking woman with an intriguingly dusky timbre. “Cruda sorte” and “Per lui che adoro” both have lovely moments. Her lower register sounds completely mushy and unfocused though, and the rapid-fire patter dialogue is completely garbled. She also has a heavy, prominent Slavic vibrato that sounds rather weird in Rossini. She does look fantastic in the often revealing costumes.

Yijie Shi (Lindoro) is a complete disappointment. Even on video/recording the voice sounds microscopic, and the upper register tight and constricted. He doesn’t do anything really wrong, but the bar for Rossini tenors has been set so high in recent years that his small, modest voice and unassuming vocalism are a let-down. Also, of the not-funny leads, he’s perhaps the most not-funny. He’s sort of like Jonas Kaufmann in that he has Resting Glumface but unlike JK, his voice type kind of restricts him to many comic tenorino roles.

Alex Esposito (Mustafa) is nothing distinguished vocally, but is the most in tune with the comedy of the piece. He does all the comic gags of the production with relish, like his constant cigar-chomping and the fact that he kills someone with his gun each time he wakes up. Mario Cassi (Taddeo) also adds some much-needed levity to Livermore’s imperfectly conceived production. Conductor Juan Ramon Encina somehow completely misses the charm of Rossini’s score which adds to the unexpectedly leaden, lifeless performance.

I do think Livermore’s production has promise, but it needs a more dynamic, engaged cast that’s more comfortable with comedy. It’s unfortunate that the performance recorded for posterity was so mediocre.