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OPERA REVIEW

Strong singing, inventive set boost ‘Italian Girl in Algiers’

Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as the title character in “The Italian Girl in Algiers.’’ Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as the title character in “The Italian Girl in Algiers.’’ (Chris Mckenzie)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / July 29, 2011

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Early on, Boston Midsummer Opera’s production of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri’’ (“The Italian Girl in Algiers’’) abandoned any ambitions of suspense. Sandra Piques Eddy, in the title role, stepped onto a Middle Eastern shore, seemingly straight from the Italian edition of “Vogue,’’ deploying confidently flirty glamour and down-to-earth impudence in such quantities as to indicate that her battle of wills with the tyrannical Mustapha (Eric Downs) was going to be comfortably one-sided. Drew Minter’s staging was all comic surface: broad, categorized characters; broad, jokey blocking. That’s not necessarily bad - Rossinian comedy has ample cartoonish capacity. But this rendition was neither charged enough for drama nor anarchic enough for a cartoon.

The story - the shipwrecked Isabella conniving her and her beloved Lindoro (Bradley Williams) out of Mustapha’s clutches - could offer opportunity for dark shadows, particularly when updating the East-West friction into a contemporary setting. But Minter seemed content to limit the modernization to costumes (Mustapha as Gordon Gekko in Arab headdress) and props.

Language was a problem. BMO presented the opera in English, which, at best, requires some work to bubble and froth the way Italian does naturally. The translation, however, was prosaic and literal, attaining neither Gilbert-like density of wit nor the original’s twittering fleetness, slowing the tempo and complicating the singers’ task.

There was, still, a fair amount to like about the production. Stephen Dobay’s pop-up-book Persian set and Karen Perlow’s pastel-box lighting kept the eyes entertained. And the singing ranged from quite good to very good indeed. Eddy’s mezzo-soprano was terrific, plenty of power and polish, gunmetal low notes, percolating roulades. As Mustapha, Downs was velvety-smooth, dark-hued, stylish, especially good in recitative and more lyrical intimidation. Williams’s singing tended toward a kind of one-size-fits-all tenor - everything slotted into the same space - but was flexible and assured.

Soprano Sara Jakubiak unleashed fine, high-gloss brightness as Elvira, Mustapha’s long-suffering wife. David Kravitz resourcefully wrung a fair bit of character out of Taddeo’s nervous perplexity while lavishing a deep, ringing baritone on his lines. David Lara and Julia Mintzer made accomplished impressions in supporting roles; a quartet of henchmen (Sean Lair, Michael Kuhn, Stephen Humeston, and Joshua Taylor) were subtly funny. Leading an 18-player, chamber-scaled pit, conductor Susan Davenny Wyner overcame some first-act coordination slips and settled into a solid performance, slightly heavy-edged, but with a sense for moments of lingering, teasing rubato.

The end of the first act features that Rossini specialty, an intricate, frozen-time chorus, perusing the company’s sheer stupefaction at the plot’s complications, and for once the production soared into joyous nonsense so transcendent that, paradoxically, the characters and the dramatic stakes briefly took on unsuspected depth. That rarified giddiness was otherwise absent; to paraphrase Niels Bohr on quantum theory, this “L’Italiana’’ was crazy, but not nearly crazy enough to be true.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

ROSSINI: “THE ITALIAN GIRL IN ALGIERS’’ Boston Midsummer Opera

Drew Minter, stage director; Susan Davenny Wyner, music director

At: Tsai Performance Center, Boston University, Wednesday (repeats today and Sunday)