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Revisiting Rossini's 'L'italiana in Algeri'; OCP finally is confident in a cast to revive its winning 2000 production.

11.18.08
Corrado Rovaris
Philadelphia Inquirer

The lighter the opera, the more likely it will go the way any strong wind is blowing.

The Opera Company of Philadelphia on Friday revived its lovable, storybook production of Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri. It was first seen in 2000, both at the Academy of Music and on PBS, and was kept on ice presumably until a cast could be assembled that wouldn't compare badly with the earlier one, which contained the then-up-and-coming Stephanie Blythe and Juan Diego Florez.

Now, OCP has more of a Rossinian infrastructure: Mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose and tenor Lawrence Brownlee both specialize in this repertoire and have worked well in other Rossini outings here, and baritone Kevin Glavin apparently has a (deserved) standing invitation for anything involving opera buffa. Music director Corrado Rovaris has staked his claim on opera of this era and kept this one aloft more consistently than I thought possible.

Even with a familiar production, the opera was a new experience, without some of the higher peaks of yore but certainly carrying itself with more confidence and authority. Still, it's best if you're already in the mood for busy music and unsophisticated humor; even this Italiana may not have much conversion power over furrow-browed Wagnerites.

Premiered in 1813 when the composer was 21, Italiana is one of those harem operas with a repressive, lecherous Mustafa predictably becoming the victim of his own myopic vanity when a desirable Italian girl makes sure his designs backfire on him.

The vocal showcase potential is higher here than in Barber of Seville, but good singing isn't enough. The 1986 Metropolitan Opera DVD starring the flawless Marilyn Horne is now only intermittently engaging because the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production invested in novelty that's no longer novel.

Above all, any Italiana production must be good company. And the Paul Shortt set design for the Philadelphia production - with its vivid seaside colors and surprisingly deft ability to be fanciful but not silly - is a winning visual environment. Though I've never been one for Rossinian gag fests, director Stefano Vizioli deployed them almost choreographically, reflecting the rhythm and motion of the music at hand.

As Mustafa, Glavin executed with exasperated directness that kept the intrigue as real as it can be, while also being the glue for the opera's hardly consequential narrative. Vocally he was a bit rough; were he a bit more sonorous and agile, he'd rule the Rossinian opera world.

Donose, in the title role, has never been more physically alluring. But her voice, whose quick, pulsating vibrato was never that aggressive to begin with, was required by the role to navigate the less-powerful lower range of her voice.

On the plus side, she gave phrase shapes and dramatic ideas rather than individual vocal skyrockets. Even more adept at that was Brownlee, her leading man: Even the best coloratura tenors sound like stunt singers, but not him. His phrasing was marvelously conversational, as if speaking a first language. I'll take that over the more virtuosic Florez.