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Ensemble

Wholly Captivating

Rossini's 'Italian Girl in Algiers'
impresses HOWARD SMITH

 

This NBR New Zealand Opera / Scottish Opera co-production, designed, built and premièred in New Zealand, and sung in Italian with English surtitles, will travel to Scotland for a series of performances in October 2009. A strong high-tech component gave Rossini's frothy L'Italiana in Algeri its cutting edge for the scintillating NBR NZ Opera production in Auckland and Wellington. The production was seen on Saturday 16 May 2009 at St James Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand, directed by Colin McColl and conducted by Wyn Davies, with the Vector Wellington Orchestra and members of the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus.

This comic masterpiece wasn't the first opera to depict the duping of an old fool in love (witness Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail three decades earlier) but it catapulted Rossini to fame in 1813 when he was just twenty one.

Naturally a strong cast, lively direction, gaudy costuming, giddy comic skills, sparkling orchestral accompaniment and more than usual inventiveness is vital for early nineteenth century operatic dramma giocoso

In this first offering of its 2009 season the entire NZ assemblage, onstage and off, met these requirements on all counts.

Rossini wrote fourteen comic operas, and this production, destined later in the year for Scottish Opera, utilized advanced 21st century technology; a development that would surely have delighted Rossini, just as it bedazzled Wellington opera-goers.

Appropriately motley pirates were seen being directed in wacky modern gear at an on-stage dress rehearsal against a plain lime green backscreen.

Standing, from left to right: Conal Coad as Mustafà, Richard Green as the captain of the pirates, Kristen Darragh as Zulma and Katherine Wiles as Elvira. Sitting, Mean Corby (left) and Kali Chote, in NBR New Zealand Opera's production of Rossini's 'The Italian Girl in Algiers'. Photo © 2009 Neil Mackenzie
Standing, from left to right: Conal Coad as Mustafà, Richard Green as the captain of the pirates, Kristen Darragh as Zulma and Katherine Wiles as Elvira. Sitting, Mean Corby (left) and Kali Chote, in NBR New Zealand Opera's production of Rossini's 'The Italian Girl in Algiers'. Photo © 2009 Neil Mackenzie

Simultaneously above their heads 'projected upstage' the identical action appeared against real 'mock-up' settings, alive with comic sight gags -- rubber beach inflatables frolicked in the bay while cartoon dolphins gamboled in Algerian waters.

How welcome to see the key players at a distance and in close-up when highly mobile facial expressions add so much to crucial character building.

The North African cove, with its opulent 'anchored' pirate cruiser and incongruous giant container vessel seemed suspiciously Pacific rather than Mediterranean. But what matter -- it was in these seas that Mustafà (hilarious NZ bass, Conal Coad) and Lindoro (German tenor, Christian Baumgärtel) sang while water skiing as they rehearsed the self-same scene on dry land.

Costume designer Nic Smillie's eye-catching spectrum of dress from bikinis and casual beach-ware to Isabella's opulent red dress gave the characters by librettist Angelo Anelli (1761-1820) an added 'feel-good' impact and the deck and shoreline shenanigans were a 'hoot'.

Wendy Dawn Thompson as Isabella in New Zealand Opera's 'The Italian Girl in Algiers'. Photo © 2009 Neil Mackenzie
Wendy Dawn Thompson as Isabella in New Zealand Opera's 'The Italian Girl in Algiers'. Photo © 2009 Neil Mackenzie

Soprano Wendy Dawn Thompson proved an ideal Isabella; her vocal firepower, stratospheric agility and audacious character portrayal abounded with conviction as a sharp-witted, sassy signorina running rings round Mustafà played in wonderful over-the-top buffo style by Coad.

As Elvira, a beauty relegated in the men's inconstant affections, New Zealand-born soprano Katherine Wiles revealed the benefits of experience gained with companies as far apart as Swansea and Sydney -- here was another wholly captivating performance.

Baumgärtel seemed a shade lightweight in this South-west Pacific company; not necessarily a bad thing however, for in this opera, Anelli's women tend to steal the show. Vocally, Lindoro calls for complete technical skills and these were never in doubt.

Auckland-based Richard Green played the pirates' captain and Mustafà's 'dogsbody' while Kristen Darragh (Zulma) matched Elvira with her ditzy antics.

From left to right, Warwick Fyfe, Renee Newport and Conal Coad in NZ Opera's 'The Italian Girl in Algiers'. Photo © 2009 Neil Mackenzie
From left to right, Warwick Fyfe, Renee Newport and Conal Coad in NZ Opera's 'The Italian Girl in Algiers'. Photo © 2009 Neil Mackenzie

A farrago of props, effects and gadgets included Sit 'n' Bounce play balls, a 'Segway PT' (a two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle) and aboard the cruiser Alexander Cabanel's Birth of Venus (1863), attended by cherubs, while reclining nude on a billowing seascape.

When required, prop shifters were camouflaged in clinging lime green all-over body suits (and balaclavas) blending with the free-standing, lime green wall.

Throughout the final curtain calls the capacity audience cheered, whistled and stamped its feet -- a sound seldom heard in polite New Zealand theatres or symphony halls.

And no wonder -- as its tsunami tide of effervescence and ingenuity swept over the footlights, New Zealand Opera's L'Italiani in Algeri became an object lesson in high art and comic entertainment.

Wendy Dawn Thompson as Isabella in New Zealand Opera's 'The Italian Girl in Algiers'. Photo © 2009 Neil Mackenzie
Wendy Dawn Thompson as Isabella in New Zealand Opera's 'The Italian Girl in Algiers'. Photo © 2009 Neil Mackenzie

For the delight of Scottish Opera audiences a separate cast will be headed by Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill (Isabella) and, making his UK début, Italian bass Tiziano Bracci (Mustafà). Scottish Opera music director Francesco Corti conducts.

After an acclaimed début in the role of Waltraute (Götterdämmerung) at the 2008 BBC Proms, Karen was asked to repeat her performance with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in May 2009 under Sir Simon Rattle.

Tiziano Bracci plays Lorenzo alongside Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón in Deutsche Grammaphon's CDs of Bellini's bel canto opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi recorded live (2008) with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (conductor Fabio Luisi).

Copyright © 21 May 2009 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand

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GIOACHINO ROSSINI

L'ITALIANA IN ALGERI

NEW ZEALAND OPERA

SCOTTISH OPERA

NEW ZEALAND

SCOTLAND

WELLINGTON

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