Atlanta closes its 2012-13 season with a double whammy. On the eve of the unveiling of its season closer (Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”), the company officially announced the appointment of its new General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, following the awkward resignation of Zurich General Director Dennis Hanthorn last July. The news came as a big relief to the local opera scene, as the lack of steady artistic vision would have spelled disastrous to the company as it enters its 35th season. Mr. Zvulun thus becomes the fourth Artistic Director to steward the company, and if his work as a director is any indication, his reign promises to bring striking visual productions of tried and true selections from the standard repertoire. If the lineup for next season is any indication, it is also likely to ensure repeats of the same twenty operas the city has been resigned to memorize for the past 34 years. Since your friends at newoutpost are barely middle class and would love to avoid those pesky travel expenses, we are rooting for our home city’s opera company and wish Mr. Zvulun the greatest success.
This production of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” has been making its rounds since it debuted in Santa Fe in 2002. In it, the action has been shifted to Algiers circa 1920’s, and presents Isabella as a piquant aviatrix with overtones of Marlene Dietrich in the classic film “Morocco”. Despite some superfluous edits and anachronisms, this updated treatment (with its efficient open book design) provided an overall charming setting for the proceedings, which rose to hilarity under the hands of director Helena Binder. The cast assembled by the Atlanta Opera made a greater impact when assessed as a collective entity. They were occasionally let down by the tentative pace dictated by conductor Arthur Fagen, who not only took a full act to ease himself into the whimsical spirit of the work, but was unable to keep a tight reign over the more complicated ensembles, disappointing badly during the opera’s famous act one finale.
In her assumption of the title character, mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy scored a triumph as Isabella, in great part thanks to her charming personality and winning looks. A tall, trim young lady, she looked splendid in the variety of get ups thrown her way by the costume department: From her aviation jumpsuit to a slinky old Hollywood sparkly frock. During the second act’s tricky scena, “Per lui che adoro,” she achieved a veritable coup du theatre by singing the aria semi nude in a bathtub. Additionally aided by her saucy, tongue in cheek stage manner, the kittenish, quick-witted personality of the opera’s heroine fitted her to a T. The success of her stage impersonation ranked superior to her vocal accomplishments, as her singing was significantly less concise and lacked the charm she so readily brought to her acting. Her voice was a flexible, well-proportioned full lyric mezzo-soprano, dark at the bottom and somewhat blowsy at the top. When the musical line forced an even transition from the top to the bottom (such as in segments of her aria di sortita “Cruda sorte” and the interminable line of “Per lui che adoro”), the cohesion in the voice was unfavorably tested. She made up via her courageous handling of the role’s extreme ornate difficulties – her coloratura was even and tastefully realized within a generally fine legato. Still, her ornamentations could have been more idiomatic. A greater concern arose in the occasion where, when faced with the task of conquering an extreme musical challenge, she simplified the difficulties by way of dividing to make them more manageable. To the detriment of the music, she accompanied this practice by applying an even handling to the broken components, rendering her singing square and limiting her ability to express. Ultimately the sameness in her vocalism resulted in a small, yet significant stop sign to an otherwise wonderful characterization.
The mounting any production of “L’Italiana in Algeri” is always dependent on finding a tenor capable of surviving Lindoro’s exceptionally high tessitura. For the role’s stratospheric introductory aria, “Languir per una bella,” Michele Angelini excelled at negotiating high-lying rigours with little difficulty. The tall, handsome tenor brought to the part a lacrymose and lithe voice, which found its comfort zone in the higher regions of its scale. The sustained pressure at the top, culminating in high C, held no terrors whatsoever, so much so that the artist graced his song with even higher alternatives, propelling him to go up to the C sharp and high D options to dazzling effect. The ensuing cabaletta “Contenta quest’alma” brought with it an effortless display in florid singing, his accomplished scales and runs neatly produced and stylishly realized. These qualities were to become the hallmark of his work throughout the entire evening, qualifying him as the finest Rossinian in the entire cast. Some pesky limitations were not to be ignored. Though the voice was appropriately high, its presence was consistently passive and meek, and threatened to unravel in the few instances where he pressed the instrument towards more forceful dynamics. This ensured a demure vocal profile during the opera’s many large ensembles, reserving a greater impression for the charming duets and trios that comprise the majority of the role. For any heavier part, this would be a crimpling handicap, but as it stands this gentle voice functions more than well as Rossini’s benign tenor boyfriends.
The lower voices were lead by Burak Bilgili in the hilarious role of Mustafa. The Turkish artist unleashed a bass of excellent volume (the biggest voice in the ensemble), striking sonic presence, and great comedic timing. Despite a less than ideal bel canto technique (he managed all the florid requirements by way of remarkably disturbing aspirations,) his gruff and pompous vocalism combined perfectly with an endearing stage deportment to bring the outrageously ridiculous bey Mustafa to life, and thus providing one of the most complete characterizations onstage. Lesser marks apply to the work of bass-baritone Bruno Pratico in the role of Taddeo, a singer who has enjoyed an important international career in the bel canto comic roles, particularly those of Rossini. Histrionically he was marvelous, and had the audience in stitches at his every appearance. What kept him from stealing the spotlight from the rest of his colleagues was the unfortunate condition of his dry and leathery voice, which consistently undermined the success of his theatrical performance. His saving grace was the informed manner with which he phrased the Rossinian lines, a mastery which the rest of his colleagues would do well to emulate.
The lesser parts were unevenly fulfilled. As Elvira, Ashley Emerson brought a pretty but passive soprano to the proceedings, greatly dwarfing her participation in the ensembles – especially the crucial act one finale. Her servant, Zulma, was better served by the sturdy mezzo-soprano of Maria McDaniel. The tiny role of Haly was sung by bass Frederick Jackson, who would have inspired a greater assessment had his aria di sorbetto been included in this production.
There are two more opportunities to catch this production of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”. For more information on how you can join in the fun, visit the Atlanta Opera’s website at www.atlantaopera.org