Friday, July 29, 2016

Portland Opera’s wacky, madcap Italian Girl goes off the silly meter charts

Aleksandra Romano as Isabella | Photo by James Daniel
Portland Opera concocted a totally hilarious opening-night performance (July 22nd) of Rossini’s “The Italian girl in Algiers,” giving it an unforgettable screwball comedy treatment. The production, directed by Christian Räth, featured dynamic young professionals who seemed to be having a blast scampering about the stage while creating one wacky situation after another and singing their hearts out. Audience members at the Newmark Theatre could be excused if they were laughing so hard that they forgot to notice the music. The production was definitely the funniest that Portland Opera has ever produced.

You could tell right away that you were in for something special when a gaggle of tourists (choristers) came down a far aisle and ascended the stage, which was covered from end to end by a gigantic, opulent, oriental carpet, which suggested the landscape of Algeria. They were agog as they witnessed the lamentations of Elvira who had just been rejected by her husband Mustafà, the bey of Algiers. He wants to get rid of his wife by pawning her off to his Italian slave Lindoro, and he demands that one of his captains, Haly, to get him smoking hot Italian girl. Shortly afterward, Isabella, who has been searching for her fiancée Lindoro, is washed up on the shore with Taddeo, an older man who is smitten with her, but so is Mustafà . From this point on, the plot becomes more convoluted but the bottom line is that Isabella uses her wits and her sex to outmaneuver everyone so that she can return home with Lindoro.

To be sure, Räth did take a few liberties with the story line, using tourists instead of eunuchs and jettisoning the escape at the end for a feather-flying pillow fight. It all worked incredibly well to update the story into today’s world. Speaking of updates, when Mustafà appeared in full-regalia, he reminded me of photos of Gaddafi. Even the gold lame-like track suit bespoke the Gaddafi style. There were also some highly nuanced props that included Mustafà on the cover of “Gente” magazine, an Italian weekly and Pappatici Pizza boxes. 
Ashraf Sewailam as Mustafa with Lindoro, Taddeo, and Isabella | Photo by James Daniel
On top of the clever props and the inventive costumes of designer Susan Bonde, the entire ensemble camped things up with show stopping antics, including a juke and jive number (kudos to choreographer Anne Egan) that caused laugher to erupt from all corners of the hall. Everything was wonderful lit by designer Connie Yun with the colors of the Italian flag filling in the background.

Comely Aleksandra Romano had a field day as Isabella, enticing the men with a wink and a nod – all the while singing with pinpoint accuracy and emotion. Combining a playboy’s swagger with deft comic timing, Ashraf Sewailam gave Mustafà a cartoonish quality that was almost endearing. His powerful bass-baritone negotiated all of the twists and turns that Rossini threw at him with panache. Jonathan Johnson created a passionate Lindoro, and he sang with surprising power although his transitions from the ultra-high range to the middle were not totally smooth.

Katrina Galka, as Elvira, pouted and frowned with conviction, but it was her crawling and pawing across the stage while hitting one high not after the next that I’ll never forget. Laura Beckel Thoreson’s Zulma rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders in total disbelief as she sought to accommodate Elvira. In the role of Taddeo, Ryan Thorn staggered around wrapped up inside a carpet, but that didn’t stop him from singing up a storm. Even when he was topped with a lampshade on his head, Thorn held forth with Taddeo’s unending bravado that reached its silliest with the competitive “Pappataci” shout-out with Mustafà. Rounding out the cast, Deac Guidi added to the hilarity as Haly, the almost competent captain of the guard.
Katrina Galka as Elvira and Laura Beckel Thoreson as Zulma | Photo by James Daniel

The orchestra, commanded by George Manahan, sounded in fine form. The overture sparkled, but owing to the reduced number of strings that are able to fit into the tiny orchestra pit, their sound was less prominent throughout the evening. Manahan improvised brilliantly on the harpsichord, adding riffs and flourishes that Rossini would have approved. The chorus, prepared by Nicholas Fox, sang with gusto while also playing an active part as tourists and retainers of Mustafà.

Portland Opera's production of Rossini's lunatic comedy runs through August 6th. If you are in need of laughter and want to hear some outstanding singing, I highly recommend that you purchase a ticket right away.

Caveat. I have heard from friends sitting in the upper (second) balcony that it is very difficult to hear the strings. If you get tickets in the upper balcony, see if you can get them in the front rows.

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