Abdrazakov’s delightful Bey lifts Met’s rough-edged Rossini
More Met comedy, please.
The premise of opera is absurd enough—people singing everything they have to say—that it’s fertile ground for the comic. There are plenty of good comic operas in the repertoire, but they usually make up a sliver of a company’s season.
One such sliver is Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, which opened Tuesday night at the Metropolitan Opera. Despite more than a few rough spots, this was an entertaining evening, in part due to the quality of Rossini’s work itself, but substantially because of bass Ildar Abdrazakov’s performance as the story’s centerpiece, Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers.
Abdrazakov is right at home in Rossini opera buffa; along with Mustafa he’s known for his Don Basilio in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. He got off to a slow start, his voice not entirely free at the bottom in his opening conversation with pirate captain Haly (sung by the always fine bass Dwayne Croft). Yet Abdrazakov’s big voice is perfect for the Bey’s buffoonish bluster, and he played the part with more ham and relish than a Chicago hot dog. More than entertaining, he was clearly enjoying himself, which spread an infectious pleasure to the audience.
Almost everyone else in the production was similarly slow off the mark, except for soprano Ying Fang, who played Elvira, Mustafa’s quasi-estranged wife, and the chorus, the first voices heard. The men’s baritone voices as the eunuchs were suitably comic, and Fang was bright and clear from the very beginning.
They put the right foot forward after an uneven overture. James Levine is back in the pit for this production, and was responsible for the uncertain rhythms and tempos that accompanied the opening woodwind solos. Once the score hit its stride, though, the orchestral playing was vivacious, with crisp phrasing and a glinting sound.
Hitting one’s stride was one of the themes of the night, along with debuts. Mezzo Rihab Chaieb made a solid first Met appearance as Elvira’s friend Zulma, a small role that has more theatrical performing than singing. Tenor René Barbera took the house’s stage for the first time as Mustafa’s Italian slave Lindoro, to whom Mustafa wishes to hand off Elvira.
And l’Italiana herself, Isabella, was sung by mezzo Marianna Pizzolato in an unexpected debut. Elizabeth DeShong initially cast, withdrew due to illness, and Pizzolato will sing Isabella for the complete run.
Pizzolato’s voice and manner were on the stiff side for her opener, “Cruda sorte!”, the sound, notes, and gestures all in place but with no particular musicality or affect. As the opera went on, her voice gradually warmed and opened up, as she sang phrases, not just notes. She hit all her marks and her stage presence grew. Overall it was an able debut, though not a memorable one, although the circumstances would have one expecting her performance to grow in confidence and charm as the run goes on.
Charm is key to the character: Mustafa wishes to trade Elvira for Isabella (he thinks Italian girls are hot), and with utter confidence Isabella manipulates him into releasing Lindoro (her lover), and the older gentleman Taddeo (baritone Nicola Alaimo, who was a terrific foil for Abdrazakov), with whom she was captured and who is enamored of her. Men need to be falling all over Isabella, while she gets them to do everything she wants, including turning Mustafa into the primo buffoono. Pizzolato didn’t show that ability Tuesday night.
Nor did Barbera portray an ideal Lindoro. He’s the straight man, which is a thankless task, but also gets two solo arias, “Languir per una bella” in Act I and “Ah come il cor di giubilo” in Act II. Barbera’s sound was rough and grating in the former, and while he managed to take the edge off in the latter, he’s the type of singer who adds emphasis through shouting, which was unmusical and unpleasant. His stage performing was rudimentary.
L’Italiana can almost save itself, though—this is an early “mature” work for Rossini, and one of his best comic operas, bursting with energy. His trademark appears here, his way of building scenes to a comic frenzy by not just pushing the tempo but slicing the music into ever smaller rhythmic subdivisions. The big ensemble pieces—a quartet and a septet—were vocally sloppy but left the proper impression of musical slapstick, the Marx Brothers avant la lettre.
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1973 production is every bit as stale as the date suggests. But with Abdrazakov bounding around the stage, shimmying his hips, doing the swim, proudly displaying his (mock) chest hair, missing the target when tossing a bouquet, scarfing down pasta, and even taking an unintentional spill, the flaws are easily forgotten. His sheer glee in performing the part honors Rossini and the audience in the best way possible.
L’Italiana in Algeri continues at the Metropolitan Opera through October 29. metopera.org