Opera Review – The Italian Girl in Algiers

November 23, 2009 | By More

★★★★☆ 

Festival Theatre
Review by Thom Dibdin

Busy to the point of bursting, Scottish Opera’s vigorous co-production with the NBR New Zealand Opera of Rossini’s shining comic opera at the Festival Theatre is a captivating yet strangely disconcerting affair.

Which is not to fault director Colin McColl. It is just to say that Rossini’s plot is so full of unlikely events that even this modernisation can’t stop the brain boggling. And while the set of a cheap daytime soap opera provides an exciting, logical and appropriately entertaining setting, so much is happening on stage that it threatens to detract from the music.

Indeed, McColl acknowledges as much, by clearing the stage for Scottish mezzo soprano Karen Cargill’s key arias in the title role of Isabella, the Italian girl captured by Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers. Which leaves Rossini’s finest and most delicately structured music mercifully free from the detractions of superimposed background or milling stagehands.

Elsewhere, however, while Rossini is busy developing the comic elements of his plot, the superimposed scenery is creating the illusion of yachts in the med, swimming pools by the beach and grandiose state rooms.

The plot of the soap opera Algiers follows that of the original opera itself. Surrounding it, all the backstage elements of the soap are clearly visible on stage. And at the centre is a vast “green-screen” set.

On this big, blank, all-green background the singers stand, pout and pontificate. Above them, is a large screen with what the camera sees – their images superimposed onto a suitable background. Along with the English subtitles for the opera itself.

Which makes for some hilarious moments. When Mustafa reveals to his captive Lindoro that he will be released to return to Italy if he takes Mustafa’s docile wife Elvira with him, it is against a backdrop which makes the pair look as if they are water-skiing.

Not only does Isabella, Lindoro’s finance who has come looking for him, get all the best tunes, but Cargill gets some of the best visual gags. Thrown into the hold of Mustafa’s yacht with her sugar-daddy Taddeo, she zooms around on an electric two-wheeled buggy, making more than suggestive use of the joystick, thrusting up in front of her.

The tricksy photography and setting does enough to make this a hugely accessible production for any soap-literate non-opera buff. The only really infuriating element being that while the time-lag between the live action and the screen is tiny, it is still obvious.

Close your eyes, and the music is as good as what you can see. The orchestra give a crisp account of themselves under Wyn Davies baton. Bass Tiziano Bracci brings power and an evil glissando as Mustafa and tenor Thomas Walker is light of tone as Lindoro. Yet it is Cargill who truly shines in a role which she does not merely fill, but positively dominates.

Run continues Wednesday and Friday

ENDS

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