Rossini’s Comedic ‘Italian Girl’ Finds Home in Calgary

Allyson McHardy in Calgary Opera’s production of Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers. (Trudie Lee)
Isabella (Allyson McHardy) is a marooned aviatrix in Rossini’s ‘The Italian Girl in Algiers’ at Calgary Opera (Trudie Lee)
By Bill Rankin

CALGARY  — Toronto is home of the somewhat presumptuously named Canadian Opera Company, the country’s oldest opera company, with doubtless the largest opera company budget in the land and the most productions and performances. It is also a company that, notwithstanding its nationalist branding, has not produced a Canadian opera in 14 years: Randolph Peters’ The Golden Ass, a poorly received work with a libretto by renowned Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, was its last.

Arrata Opera Centre, home of Calgary Opera. (Calgary Opera)
Arrata Opera Centre, headquarters of Calgary Opera.

Calgary Opera, on the other hand, under visionary general manager Bob McPhee, has commissioned or co-produced four new main-stage shows in the past decade, including Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, an international collaboration that had its premiere in Dallas in 2010. (PBS showed a San Francisco Opera performance recently.) Last year, PBS televised Edmonton composer John Estacio’s Filumena, Calgary Opera’s first commission, produced 10 years ago. (Estacio is currently tidying up a score for Cincinnati Ballet’s King Arthur’s Camelot, premiering in February.) Calgary Opera has ambitions.

When McPhee’s 41-year-old group is not staging new works, it presents Canadian premieres of American works, such as The Ballad of Baby Doe or Dead Man Walking. In 2014, it will offer Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer-winning Silent Night, marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. That will be a Canadian premiere. And although he would not disclose particulars, McPhee told me there are some new projects in the works.

Yet the past two seasons have taken a somewhat conservative turn. Last year, the repertoire included three Verdi operas, and this season the company is staging Wagner’s  The Flying Dutchman and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The season opened Nov. 16 at the Jubilee Auditorium with Rossini’s goofy The Italian Girl in Algiers, with a compact but effective 2002 set from Santa Fe Opera designed by Robert Innes Hopkins.

The Italian Girl was directed by Michael Cavanagh, who milked librettist Angelo Anelli’s proto-feminist operatic romp for every sight gag and broadly comic gesture he could. For the scene in Act I when Mustafa’s attendants bathe and groom the Bey for his first meeting with Isabella – who has just crash-landed her plane near the Middle Eastern potentate’s palace – Cavanagh choreographed with a conjurer’s delight.

Once Mustafa (Argentine bass Eduardo Chama) dropped his loincloth, Cavanagh delivered a giddy peek-a-boo buffo scene that teased the audience with the prospect of full frontal nudity but offered instead a fluid, antic comic sketch that deserved the roaring applause it received when Mustafa was back in his robes. [See this video, at the 42-second mark.] The rubber duck was a totally silly touch that worked. Recall Edward G. Robinson in The Ten Commandments to get a picture of Chama’s broad, burly physique, which added to the visual kookiness. The scene was so funny, I didn’t care how the singers sang, but they sang just fine.

John Tessier, Allyson McHardy, Hugh Russell. (Trudie Lee)
Isabella (Allyson McHardy) is desired by unseen rivals. (Trudie Lee)

The Italian girl, Isabella, was Canadian mezzo Allyson McHardy, a regular at the COC. McHardy has the perfect voice for a beautiful female character who is also supposed to be fearless and heroic, a woman tough enough to best a powerful man with her competency and her feminine wiles. McHardy’s lower range was verifiably contralto when necessary, but her upper notes rang round and clear, rich but not covered. Her opening cavatina, “Cruda sorte! Amor tiranno!,” gave the audience its first chance to break the mood with applause, and she impressed throughout the evening. She also presented the dominatrix aspect of her aviatrix persona funnily enough, although she was certainly not the comic relief in this Italian dramma giocoso.

Taddeo (Hugh Russell) loves Isabella, too. (David Mitchell, Calgary Opera)
For laughs, Taddeo (Hugh Russell) loves Isabella, too. (David Mitchell)

That responsibility was left to Chama’s Mustafa and to baritone Hugh Russell, in the role of Isabella’s wimpy admirer Taddeo. Russell sang well, and the cast followed Cavanagh’s staging with glee, delivering a comedy that worked.

The two roles played least for laughs and most for full-throated operatic style are Lindoro’s (as Isabella’s true love) and Elvira’s (as Mustafa’s discarded wife). Canadian tenor John Tessier has sung with Calgary Opera several times, and he has the looks and lyric sound to play any leading-man role convincingly. Tessier, now based in Edmonton, did not disappoint, and the audience appreciated the musical relief from the madcap whenever he stood and sang his heart out. Alberta has a dry climate; a few of Tessier’s high notes were a little raspy, but so what? Nobody dies in this opera.

Calgary Opera performs in Jubilee Auditorium.
Calgary Opera performs in the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.

A standout in this production was up-and-coming Canadian Jessica Strong as Elvira, a powerful, charismatic soprano whose voice commands attention and is garnering appreciation at home and in the States. I raved about her in Opera Canada when she sang in a student production in Edmonton five years ago. She went on to work with Calgary Opera’s young artists program, and it’s great to see the company give her an opportunity to make a real impression in a main production.

The Santa Fe set is utterly efficient. It opens like a kid’s pop-up book, revealing a simple salon. When it closes, it provides the cast with a solid, desert-sand-colored platform to move about on.

Calgary Opera is always accompanied by the Calgary Philharmonic. Rossini’s score has wonderful music for the winds, and the orchestra didn’t disappoint. It did seem at times, however, that conductor Robert Tweten had trouble constraining the strings, which raced a little in the overture and occasionally elsewhere.

Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who covers classical music for Opera Canada and the American Record Guide, among other publications.

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