I like an opera with ambition. Tonight I saw a production with style & wit whose chief ambition was to make us laugh: and it succeeded admirably because it was unafraid of sometimes being totally silly.
MYOpera launched their 2017 offering, the first of three performances of Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers at the Aki Studio in Daniels Spectrum.
One might expect that a company whose stock in trade is giving opportunities to young performers can’t measure up to big money productions featuring mature talent. But sometimes that tendency can work in reverse. In theatre I immediately think of Romeo and Juliet, and the credibility the story gains from a young cast. In opera it’s even more pronounced when one factors in the complex skills required to portray a Mimi, a Butterfly, a Lucia or a Juliette, meaning that the singers employed are normally older than the role they’re portraying.
I think there was at least a little of the shock of recognition in the audience with me tonight watching a lovely young group of performers, drawing us into their story-telling and music-making. It felt authentic and right.
In an early chapter of Karol Berger’s Beyond Reason, a lengthy study of Richard Wagner that I’ve been reading lately, we encounter Rossini, whose madcap operas are explained and embraced in terms of “organized lunacy”. I felt the greatest possible surrender to that impulse in this production, a fearless embrace of the wacky and the whimsical. Berger cites Alessandro Baricco, who spoke of Rossini’s creation of a theatre of marionettes, mechanical music and singing. Director Anna Theodosakis took this to the next level. No it’s not the first time I’ve seen a Rossini production reduce the performers to something mechanical—we saw this for instance in the 2015 Barber from the COC—but this seemed to take it further, as it was executed with complete abandon and commitment. At times the movements & actions of the singers seemed totally koo-koo: which certainly helped create many laughs tonight.
There is a possible international subtext to the story that happily was side-stepped, in favour of the sexual politics underpinning this redemptive tale of an independent female, a kind of inverted version of Abduction from the Seraglio, as it’s the woman rather than the man who undertakes the heroic rescue. By framing the story early in this century with at least a hint of silent film via the projected titles, we were encouraged to sidestep the problematic issues one might observe in the original text, while turning instead to the era of the suffragette.
MYOpera offer a complete package, both the dramatic values and musical ones too. Natasha Fransblow led a thoroughly organized performance, leading several quick ensembles where the singers listened to one another with fabulous attentiveness: a useful component both in the creation of cohesion and intelligibility. Sometimes the performers were singing quickly while executing complex physical moves as well.
I have a hunch that the production was built around Camille Rogers, whose intriguing looks and remarkable mezzo-soprano voice likely led the production team in their selection of repertoire. Without her confident strutting presence, the story falls apart. But whenever she came onstage, the Rossini comedy machine clicked into a higher gear.
Her rival in the operatic power struggle that triggers many of the laughs was Peter Warren’s Mustafà, a bass who was a triple threat, making us laugh with his physical plasticity, his endless array of facial expressions, or with fearsome poses and characterization. And he can sing too. Jan van der Hooft as Lindoro, Isabella’s long-lost love, gave us some of the most impressive singing of the night even though he too was conscripted into the comedy corps. There were no weak spots in the cast, especially in the beautifully balanced ensembles.
I need to mention one of my chief sources of pleasure, in the stage configuration. By accident we chose to sit on seats immediately beside the stage, a privilege I’d recommend to anyone who might be seeing one of the remaining two shows this weekend. By sitting where we did, we were watching the show obliquely, often watching singers facing an audience who thereby deconstructed any pretense of an illusion. The silliness was right in our faces, within inches. I am a sucker for theatricality, and in this show Theodosakis required her cast to work harder, coping with those of us poised right beside their performances. At times singers had no choice but to include us in the action, which can be magical, but also nerve-wracking for the singer.
If you can get there, go see The Italian Girl in Algiers because you might see a future star or two, because it’s musically excellent and yes, because it’s full of laughs.