Opera buffa was once the neglected second child in the Zeitgeist of opera—the Samuel Alito to its Chief Justice John Roberts. Sure, it has tragedy and heroism (called "opera seria" in Operaland), but opera buffa has always been seen as somewhat philistine next to those snooty, sung-in-Italian, dead-lady-at-the-end spectacles.
And that's why the reasons for which Opera Pacific selected The Italian Girl in Algiers for Orange County at first seemed a mystery to me. It's not well-known; it supposedly has a miserable sham of a plot; and, according to rumor, it's far too "Italian" to appeal to the masses—with lots of verbal jousting, physical humor and crazy coloratura singing, even for the bass and tenor.
But director Edward Hastings says the Gioachino Rossini work is "having a renaissance right now," with previous productions in Santa Fe, Toronto and (just last fall) San Francisco.
"It's got the spirit of youth in it—anything can happen," he says. "The world is a fixable place—you can take your chances and have a ball, in the audience and in the writing."
The tomfoolery of youth pretty much nails down the opera buffa art form. Prior to the buffa, operas had sad and funny parts in the same production. Then in the 1730s, the Neapolitans decided to put together these little shows in dialect, filled with stock comedy figures (the saucy shop boy, the grumbling old woman) and believable characters. Brawls for the singers, which occurred with regularity at the end of Acts 1 and 2, were a bonus element, like fights in hockey.
Rossini (another genius composer who makes me depressed) wrote The Italian Girl in Algiers in a mere 27 days at age 21, and it's true to the spirit of the Romantic Era. Most notably, instead of a brawl at the end of Act 1, there is a sort of hallucinogenic meltdown, with all the singers "suddenly turning into barnyard animals, and all kinds of strange events happen for them, including a shipwreck on land," Hastings explains.
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In the opera, the Algerian Bey, Mustafa (Richard Bernstein), tires of his wife Elvira (Kristine Winkler) and tries to send her off with his Italian slave Lindoro (Barry Banks), who used to date an Italian woman named Isabella in the homeland. Isabella (Jossie Perez) just happens to be captured after a plane wreck (a shipwreck in the original) and is forced to marry Mustafa. She sings "O che muso" ("My God what a mug!") when she meets Mustafa and worms her way out of the arrangement by rallying the other Italian slaves together. Eventually, Mustafa recognizes that Italian girls are too much trouble and lets her go with her lover Lindoro.
Hastings brought the opera out of 1813 and into an era of female emancipation in his Santa Fe production, which rented all its sets and costumes to Opera Pacific. In the new version—inspired by the novels of Isak Dinesen, the Danish woman portrayed in Out of Africa—Hastings was influenced by the early '20s and '30s, when Amelia Earhart captured our cultural imagination and when oil, coal and coffee flowed in copious amounts from colonies. Instead of a shipwreck, for instance, he has Isabella crash her plane.
This revamped version also raises all sorts of interesting questions among the singers about the right way to portray a woman who is "subordinate and bossy." Really, though, this is an opera about a woman who is trouble. My favorite kind: they're never dull. Give me a diva any day.
THE ITALIAN GIRL IN ALGIERS, OPERA PACIFIC, SEGERSTROM HALL, ORANGE COUNTY PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, 600 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 556-2787. JAN. 24, 26 & 28, 7:30 P.M.; JAN. 29, 2 P.M. $27-$261.