THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

'The Italian Girl in Algiers' gets a makeover

BMO updates Rossini opera

Sandra Piques Eddy rehearses with Eric Downs (left) and David Kravitz for Boston Midsummer Opera’s production of “The Italian Girl in Algiers.’’ Sandra Piques Eddy rehearses with Eric Downs (left) and David Kravitz for Boston Midsummer Opera’s production of “The Italian Girl in Algiers.’’ (Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By Harlow Robinson
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2011

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Not so long ago, summer opera was as rare in Boston as palm trees in Southie. Opera lovers had to make the trek to the Glimmerglass or Lake George (recently renamed Saratoga Opera) festivals in upstate New York.

No longer. Since its arrival on the scene in 2006, Boston Midsummer Opera has been offering one major production each summer, sung in English translation with a focus on local talent and reasonable ticket prices.

This summer, BMO has chosen what is arguably its most ambitious effort to date, Gioachino Rossini’s rarely performed “The Italian Girl in Algiers,’’ a fast-paced effervescent comedy that French novelist Stendahl aptly described as a work of “organized and complete madness.’’ Directed by Drew Minter, BMO artistic director, and led by Boston-based conductor Susan Davenny Wyner, “Italian Girl’’ opens a three-performance run at Tsai Performance Center at Boston University on Wednesday.

Two seasons ago, Minter staged for BMO a memorable updated version of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte’’ that transferred the beloved tale of cynical infidelity and true love to the tennis courts of a Connecticut country club. His new “Italian Girl’’ promises more of the same.

The setting is not the remotely exotic Algiers of 1813, as in Rossini’s original, but, as Minter said in a recent phone interview, “a modern Arab country with Western leanings.’’ Think Dubai or Abu Dhabi. “I read somewhere that Dubai has more cigar bars than anywhere else in the world,’’ said Minter. “They are attempting to import Western style, and this fits very well with the opera’s story. What I’m really looking at are the pretensions of wealth.’’

Pirates also feature prominently in “The Italian Girl in Algiers.’’ They capture Isabella, the Italian girl of the title, and bring her (and her older companion and unsuccessful suitor Taddeo) to the court of Mustafa, the Muslim Bey of Algiers, intent on adding a “haughty Italian signorina’’ to his harem. Rossini’s pirates were inspired by the real Barbary pirates, feared and very much in the news at the time the 21-year old Rossini wrote his opera.

In Minter’s production, the pirates are updated, becoming the vicious maritime marauders who have been seizing vessels both large and small in recent years in the Gulf of Oman. At the same time, Minter isn’t trying to turn what is one of the most delightfully silly comedies in the repertoire into a tragedy. “We are not trying to be too heavy or serious with this.’’

For “Italian Girl,’’ Rossini used a libretto by Angelo Anelli that had already been made into an opera a few years earlier by Luigi Mosca. In this story, Isabella is seized after a shipwreck near Algiers and confronted with the prospect of becoming Mustafa’s latest wife, replacing the placid Elvira.

Mustafa also imprisons and enslaves Isabella’s beloved, Lindoro. Quickly overcoming her fear, Isabella takes the situation in hand, using her feminine wiles to trick Mustafa and the not-very-bright members of his retinue. In the end, she manages not only to be joyously reunited with Lindoro, but also to dispense with another admirer, the older Taddeo, and to restore a grateful Elvira to Mustafa’s favor.

What is unusual about the story is that it upends the melodramatic conventions of the so-called “rescue opera,’’ whereby a fragile heroine is rescued from perilous circumstances by a heroic admirer. As Wyner observed in a phone interview, “It is Isabella who is doing the rescuing here. At the moment when Isabella is shipwrecked and seized, Rossini starts with familiar tragic heroine tropes in the orchestra, but the music soon shifts from shivering sounds to chords of resolve.’’

Isabella’s transformation from helpless victim to resourceful problem-solver occurs quickly, as she sings: “But enough of fear and trembling, No more timid hesitation. It is time to be resourceful, After all they’re only men, I can fool them once again.’’

“Isabella is not just a cardboard figure,’’ Wyner said. “She’s a woman, not a girl, and Rossini allows her to break the stereotypes. Her companion Taddeo is the hysterical one.’’

Rossini wrote “Italian Girl,’’ his 11th opera, in less than amonth, immediately following upon the considerable success of his serious opera “Tancredi’’ (staged in 2009 by Opera Boston). It was performed for the first time at the Teatro San Benedetto in Venice, on May 22, 1813. Rossini made numerous changes to the Anelli libretto, adding his trademark verbal tricks, especially in the famous septet at the end of Act I. Here, all the major characters register their confusion over the complicated situation by repeating nonsense syllables (“din, din,’’ “tac, tac’’, “caw, caw’’) in a rollicking ensemble that gradually gathers momentum and ends in total sonic pandemonium, all of it precisely controlled and coordinated, of course.

Wyner, who began as an operatic soprano before launching her distinguished conducting career, is leading “Italian Girl’’ for the first time. “Rossini really fleshes out his characters,’’ she said. “They are not just stock characters of commedia dell’arte. I’m trying to focus on what the music is saying and not just the words, but of course this is a never-ending-process. It’s important to remember that for Rossini’s audience, the reality of the attacks of the Barbary pirates was scary, as were the tales of the Crusades against the Muslims. To find the humor in this situation was quite daring for Rossini.’’

The music Rossini wrote for Isabella, a mezzo-soprano, not a soprano as might be expected - is particularly accomplished, said Wyner. “It requires from her a whole range of emotions. She grows musically and dramatically throughout, using her spectacular coloratura and roulades to read the character of those around her. The role demands a singer but also an artist who can plumb the depths, and has a thoughtful side. Isabella loves her tenor, Lindoro, but can be ferociously charming.’’

In the BMO production, Sandra Piques Eddy will take the role of Isabella, following on her appearance last season as Dinah in Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti.’’ Tenor Bradley Williams makes his BMO debut as Lindoro.

For conductors and directors working nearly 200 years after the opera’s premiere, the role of Mustafa (sung by a bass) presents particular challenges, with its racist anti-Muslim and anti-Arab overtones.

“Mustafa is dangerous, powerful and used to getting his own way,’’ according to Wyner. “He sees women as playthings. But he is also more than a stereotype. . . . And he, too, does go through a transformation at the end.’’ Eric Downs, last seen at BMO in 2009 as Don Alfonso in “Cosi fan tutte,’’ is singing Mustafa.

The members of the BMO orchestra are mostly seasoned local professionals, including players from the Boston Symphony, Boston Pops, and Boston Lyric Opera.

And what does BMO plan to give us next summer? “The opera has been chosen,’’ said Wyner with a conspiratorial tone in her voice. “But we decided not to announce that news until this one is behind us!’’

Whatever the choice, this young company promises to make future Boston summers considerably more operatic.

Harlow Robinson can be reached at harlo@mindspring.com.

THE ITALIAN GIRL IN ALGIERS Boston Midsummer Opera

July 27-31. Tickets $30-$50. Tsai Performance Center. 617-227-0442, www.bostonmidsummeropera.org