On Thursday August 4 there was a terrific thunderstorm over the Crosby Theater of the Santa Fe Opera. The show, appropriately Dr Atomic, continued even though the stage and surrounding area was drenched. The following afternoon an even more explosive storm hit the central area of Santa Fe causing a prolonged blackout. So we went to the theater early to escape the power outage. Everything seemed well until the show was about to start. Then nothing – a subject about which I am an expert.
After an interval of several minutes a young woman’s voice told the audience that there was a technical problem. More nothing. Then Charles MacKay the company’s General Manager appeared, looking very dapper. He told us that the fallout from the previous day’s storm had wounded the lighting system and that a reboot was in process that was expected to fix the problem. Still more nothing. Then Mr MacKay reappeared and told us that the lighting system would likely not be fixed in time for this performance, but that the company would soldier on using whatever light was handy. As if satisfied that it had received the respect it deserved the lighting system immediately returned and the show proceeded as planned, though half an hour late.
Fittingly, the opera was Rossini’s inspired immersion into the world of advanced absurdity L’Italiana in Algeri. Written in 18 days, according to its author, the 21 year old Rossini takes his audience to a realm of manic comedy devoid of any hint of sentimentality. Nothing as wonderfully wacky as this comedy was to appear until the advent of the Marx Brothers.
The time is specified only as the past. So it did not matter a fig that the Santa Fe production moved it to the 20s. Accordingly, Isabella and Taddeo arrived in a biplane rather than a ship. The set was a popup contraption that added to the opera’s built in mirth. Since it first appeared in 2002, it has been the most borrowed of all Santa Fe Opera’s productions. The plot makes about as much sense as Duck Soup and could just as easily be set in Freedonia.
Director Shawna Lucey kept the action’s flow at the quicksilver pace that Rossini’s comic terremoto demands. There was a little too much hip swaying for my taste, but the general mood of insanity was preserved throughout the evening.
Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack has all the technique needed for Rossini alpha female Italian. Her voice appears moderately sized until she opens it whereupon it becomes an instrument of immense size. Dressed as an aviatrix in the style of Amelia Earhart she controlled her three boyfriends with suitable aplomb.
Jack Swanson was Lindoro, the guy who gets the girl. Naturally, he’s a tenor. He has an ample voice that has no trouble with Rossini’s fioratura. There is a buzz in his voice that precludes the sweetness need for Rossini’s comic tenors. He acted his part with a somewhat muted style, at least in comparison to the antics of the other male protagonists.
The young bass Scott Conner gave an over the top performance of the Ottoman Bey, Mustafà. That was OK, it’s an over the top part. A little darker sound and a bit more amplitude would have helped. Equally antic was bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Isabella’s spare tire boyfriend Taddeo. He has a fine voice that could easily handle any of Rossini’s bass-baritone parts. Mezzo Suzanne Hendrix, as the Bey’s discarded but finally reclaimed wife, displayed a lot of sound suggesting that bigger things are in store for her.
Conductor Corrado Rovaris led a taut reading of this miraculous score. My only quibble is that the great offering to the god of onomatopoeia, the finale to Act 1, did not allow enough distinction to the various sound effects offered by the principals. The staging of the finale had the appropriate amount of zaniness.
On balance, the staging presented the right amount of unbalance to Rossini’s insight that all the world’s a joke. A conclusion he had reached at age 21. It took Verdi, who was born a few months after the first performance of L’Italiana, 80 years to achieve the same insight. Just for fun here again is the great finale to the opera’s initial act.