By David Shengold
NEW YORK – James Levine opened his first season as the Metropolitan Opera’s music director emeritus with a huge ovation as he emerged in the pit before the Oct. 4 season premiere of L’italiana in Algeri. The audience remains fond and supportive, and happily Levine did a very strong and tidy job.
Hardly a bel canto specialist in his initial years helming the Met, Levine first undertook this production (and score) in 1985. In the present performance, the famous overture sounded crisp and inviting. Throughout the opera – a comedy about a feisty Italian girl getting the best of her clumsy Ottoman captors – the tempo was apt, save for the final two sections of Act I. “Confusi e stupidi” was ragged in ensemble, and the wonderful concluding noise-making stretta was just too fast for the singers to articulate. It’s not Levine’s fault that L’italiana‘s pace falls off somewhat in invention in Act II. He deserved his final ovation.
Rossini’s earliest success, L’italiana has been a Met staple only in recent decades. After four performances in 1919-20 with Gabriella Besanzoni, the opera disappeared from the Met stage until 1973, when Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production – still being performed – took residence as a vehicle for the dynamo then recreating the image of a “coloratura contralto,” Marilyn Horne. The American mezzo-soprano first tackled the role in June 1964 at the San Francisco Opera. No one else could perform at Horne’s level then, but this opera is more readily cast these days than 40 years ago.
The irrepressible, swift-voiced Horne (who also took this production afield, including to San Francisco Opera as late as 1992), has dominated the opera’s history at the company, though some other plausible Isabellas (Lucia Valentini-Terrani, Florence Quivar, Jennifer Larmore) have occasionally wielded the iconic parasol. The latest to attempt the role at the Met, in 2004, was Olga Borodina, who produced a luscious sound and better than average coloratura, if minimal comic energy. Other than Besanzoni and Valentini-Terrani, the Met’s new claimant, Marianna Pizzolato, is the only actual Italiana to have sung the role for the company.
That native advantage told in her utterance of the few spoken interjections and her textual coloration. Trained and often heard at the Pesaro Festival, Pizzolato knows the currently applied Rossini style intimately, and was satisfying on that level. She also produces an attractive tone, though neither especially individual nor house-filling, and sings with creditable agility. This evening marked her Met debut. In town for the role of Hedwige in the upcoming new Met production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Pizzolato came to the rescue when the promising Elizabeth DeShong fell ill.
This role – as outlined, blocked, and supplied with “business” in the ham-fisted revival (by David Kneuss) of Ponnelle’s never very subtle original – surely fares better with an established star going through the motions. Pizzolato proved game and confident but rather arch; she was highly competent, and sometimes (as in the legato sections of “Per lui che adoro,” launched by a beautiful cello solo) very good. Hedwige should be a fine fit, and she’s certainly a well-prepared Rossini exponent.
[Update: The Met announced on Oct. 11 that Maria Zifchak will sing all eight performances of Hedwige in Guillaume Tell so that Pizzolato could continue to star as Isabella through the run, which ends Oct. 29.]
Ponnelle’s airy off-white set remains a good match for the lighthearted score and as an evocation of an Algiers not at its height. What the production lacks at this point is directorial taste. The eunuch chorus wiggles, trembles, and dances (approximately) in provincial fashion to any dance rhythm Rossini’s ensembles supply.
Everyone “acts funny,” so little humor lands. It’s disheartening that in this era of rampant Islamophobia the unthinking 1970s cliché presentation of Muslim characters continues apace in the Met’s L’italiana — and in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, not to mention 2013’s “Rat Pack Vegas” Rigoletto, in which Arab sheiks are used as a sight gag. No other ethnic group would be so cheaply and lazily depicted.
Ildar Abdrazakov – who sang one Met Mustafà in 2004 under Levine and later did a run opposite Borodina at Washington National Opera – seemed thrilled to be sending up a “wild and crazy guy” type as this particular character, which he sang with good sound and some agility despite aspirated coloratura. Younger and sexier than the usual Bey, Abdrazakov went over the top with gestures and ad libs, upstaging his colleagues vocally at some key moments. Reined in, his would have been a fine performance.
The evening’s great acquisition, loudly cheered, was Texas tenor René Barbera, already an international artist with major credits in America’s other leading houses. His lyric tenor filled the Met more than many Lindoros have, yet it remains capable of considerable dynamic subtlety, despite a tendency to revel in ringing high-register fortes that make his line less smooth than it might be. Barbera reveled in the high tessitura. He sang with feeling and point if with an excess of hand gestures. One hopes he’ll be a frequent Met guest.
Nicola Alaimo, also a well-trained Rossinian, fared solidly in Taddeo’s less than appetizing role; nice, and rare, that both he and Abdrazakov could fire off the climactic blasts of “Pappataci!” with such mastery. Ying Fang, who’s shown high quality vocalism and artistry in 18th-century roles, made an appealing Elvira. Her sound was clear and cleanly produced – Elvira gets to flaunt high Cs in the ensemble. Dwayne Croft (Aly), retaining good timbral quality and commendable agility, threw himself into the hijinx asked of his character and tackled capably the not-so-interesting aria “Le femmine d’Italia,” not by Rossini himself but the operatic equivalent of second-unit footage. Rihab Chaieb, a Canadian-Tunisian member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Program, showed a firm, pleasantly hued mezzo-soprano and solid technique as Elvira’s confidante Zulma.
Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, Playbill and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne Festivals.