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An Italian in Algiers

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

An opera by Gioacchino Rossini

Libretto by Angelo Anneli

Directed by Patricia-Maria Weinmann

With David Murray, D’Anna Fortunato, Richard Conrad, Wayne Rivera, Bonnie Scarpelli, Clara Sandler, Keith Jurosko

Presented by Boston Academy of Music

On 10/12, 8pm

Tickets $16-$55, students discounts available

At the Emerson Majestic Theatre

More information at (617) 824-8000

The opera L’Italiana in Algeri (An Italian Girl in Algiers) is one of Gioacchino Rossini’s early, funny operas. It was composed and premiered in 1813. L’Italiana could have been written in 1999, for all I know: the musical language doesn’t feel at all dated, with its irresistible rhythm-driven showstoppers. Each and every one of its musical numbers is a gem, with no exceptions. The complexity of the writing is vastly superior to anything heard in musical theatre today. And the story has a surprising amount of subtext for a slapstick comedy, being unabashedly feminist.

The story of L’Italiana in Algeri is of a confrontation. On one side, we have Mustafa, the Bei of Algiers, with his multitude of slaves, eunuchs, armed guards, and a whole harem of wives. Mustafa is a famous woman-tamer, and now he had set his eyes on something exotic: an Italian woman. On the other side of this confrontation, we have Isabella -- a lone woman captured by the Bei after she is shipwrecked on the African shore.

The fight is fixed, of course, because its opponents are so unmatched; it’s obvious that Isabella is vastly stronger, being more brave, cunning, and resourceful -- and, thus, the whole opera is about her tricking the pompous Mustafa, and escaping his clutches with her young lover and a whole boatload of liberated slaves.

There’s so much to praise about the opera: its insanely catchy and beautiful music; the hilarious gallery of characters; the succession of comic sequences; and, ultimately, its feminist subtext. There’s only one thing to praise in the Boston Academy of Music production: the fact that it doesn’t get in the way of the opera as it works its charm.

This production occupies a somewhat uneasy middle ground between two extreme modes of doing opera. One can have a purely presentational production, with sets and costumes present merely to suggest the ambiance, or one can have a production which attempts real acting, with real characters on stage. The production of L’Italiana eschews acting -- but it uses a lot of mannerisms, all of them, without exception, intended to make the audience laugh.

It works most of the time; the chorus of slaves is frequently very funny, especially when they make fun of the pompous Mustafa (David Murray) behind his back. On the other hand, Isabella (D’Anna Fortunato) incongruously acts silly, which makes no sense, considering her rather dire situation.

The musical aspects are, overall, quite impressive. In particular, the orchestra is clear and consistent, and the harpsichord part makes amusing allusions to Mozart’s works, especially his Rondo Alla Turca.

The singing is less impressive: while it’s clear and well-enunciated, none of the singers stand out, with most of the singing feeling slightly tense and not especially well-projected.

The technical aspects (set, costumes, lighting) are excellent, with the exception of the English subtitles, which omit quite a few lines in recitative sections.

But the main virtue is the clarity of the singing and the stage action: because of this, most of the charm of L’Italiana is preserved. Being able to not only hear the opera but also to see it is a special boon: only when one can do both is it possible to fully appreciate Rossini’s true genius. This genius is the creation of dazzling, carefully-created and controlled chaos -- a wild whirlwind of comic confusion. The main achievement of the current production is that it doesn’t interfere with the audience being swept away by this glorious combination of musical order and comical chaos.