Most Americans probably only associate Giacchino Rossini with "The Lone Ranger" theme from his William Tell Overture, and possibly fewer Americans recognize him as the composer of the infamous Barber of Seville. And therefore it is highly unlikely that many would associate the Rossini of the dramatic and macabre opera to the composer of the humourous and light-hearted The Italian Girl in Algeirs. Much like Wagner's Lohengrin and Puccini's La Boheme, the works of this opera have become a part of our popular perception of the genre. But while the musical style may be familiar, anyone who thinks he or she knows Rossini will be surprised by the vibrant humour, wit and irony in the Lowell House production of his most overlooked opera.
Nothing lends itself to Rossini's tidal score more than a story of comic abduction, spousal warfare, anachronistic feminism and subtle slapstick. In this opera, one Bey of Algiers, Mustafa, seeks to rid himself of his dull wife. Elvira and replace her with the kidnapped Isabella, an Italian femme fatale. Enter Lindoro, a hapless Italian slave who just happens to be the lover of Isabella. With the cooperation of an unlucky suitor and the assistance of Elvira, Isabella and Lindoro escape to Italy together by means of an outragerous contrivance, leaving Mustafa and Elvira reunited.
Lowell's The Italian Girl in Algiers serves as a good introduction to Rossini's gender conscious satire and equally rambunctious score. And although Lowell Opera has the advantage of leads from music conservatories, the student-run segments of the production also work well.
Donna Ames is brilliant as Isabella, although she seems to warm only gradually to her character through the first act. But by the second act her acting and singing are consistently stellar. Ames's Isabella is indeed Rossini's willful and clever heroine; she is convincing in her character's guile.
James Ruff's energetic portrayal of Lindoro, the heroine's lover, saves was an otherwise anemic role. Of all the leads, ruffs arias are the most consistent, his crescendos gradual and never punched. Aside from needless in his opening aria, Ruff displayed Sunday night a mastery of facial mime and stage presence. His improvisation takes full advantage of the humorous license that Rossini gives his characters.
As the utterly, smitten Mustafa. Jeffrey Stevens combines vocal stamina with a sustained level of high comedy that seemed contagious on Sunday: where Stevens was brilliant, the entire cast shone. And although he strains with some measures that were too high in his upper register, these mistakes are easily outshone by a truly professional performance.
Paul Lincoln, as Isabella's lonely and luckless suitor Taddeo, conveys the essence of hid conceited character perfectly. Although his voice was not spectacular (he was rumored to have been ill on Sunday), his excellent positioning, mime and gesturing complemented the humour show of Stevens and Ames. In the finale, Lincoln finishes the opera with a show of vocal stamina indicative of ali of the leads.
Lars Mellander (Ali), Dorothy Morris (Elvira), and Janine Wanee (Zulma) turn in performance of technical aplomb but little else. Mellander's inexpressive mime doesn't go beyond the essentials. Morris's Elvira is appropriately pitiful, but comes across more contentious than helpless, more an evil shrew than a hapless victim of a inane husband's scorn. And Wanee's Zulma, although not a major part, fades too easily into inconsequence.
The show's chorus, made up of the only graduates in the cast, offers a fine complement to the show's great leads. The choreography of the opening and the pirate scene during Isabella's first aria are excellent. But too often members gesturing seemed vapid, aimless and irrelevant. This inability to sustain convincing activity behind the leads greatly hurts an otherwise good performance.
A good amount of credit is due to the Bach Society's Sarah Hicks and Evan Christ for directing very possibly the best orchestra that has played at a student production this year. Crisp and explosive, the strings also show an ability to caress and coax the ear in the in subtler arias. With the exception of several errors in the French horn solo in the second act, the orchestra meets the challenge of Rossini's score.
Finally kudos go to Chris Scully, Lucy Deakins, and the remainder of the remainder of the technical staff for a competent job in the design and management of set and lighting. Their efforts and those of the cast make The Italian Girl in Algiers the best thing to happen to Lowell House dining hall since the Chickwich.