What’s not to like? Music by Rossini – always pleasant and hummable; Improbable plot – so what else is new in opera; happy ending – I mean really happy – good guys get what they want and bad guys turn out to be not bad at all. You walk out of the theatre humming melodies, chuckling, and feeling good.
All of that applies to any performance of The Italian Girl in Algiers. For the particular performance I saw Sunday night, add Donald Pippin and his Pocket Opera. First, there are the wonderful lines and rhymes of his translations into English.
Second, the singers all have exceptional diction – I get at least 80% of the words without referring to the supertitles. Finally, there are Donald Pippin’s incredible monologues introducing and describing the action.
As I said, “What’s not to like?”
I admit that I did hear a few gasps of outrage from some of the audience at the opening verse of the chorus (Justin Marsh, Cal Domingue, Brian livingston) :
followed by Mustafa’s remarks quoted above.
But they only had to wait a scene until Isabella sang
to realize that women were not going to be short-changed in this opera.
Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, The Italian Girl in Algiers is unique among operas in that it reverses the usual roles of the leading man and woman. When the opera begins the hero Lindoro (Jonathan Smucker) is a helpless slave in the power of Mustafa (Robert Stafford), the Bey of Algiers with no ideas for escape. The heroine Isabella (Kindra Scharich) arrives in the nick of time and thinks up a clever scheme for freeing her lover so that they can live happily ever after.
The cast members were all excellent. I’ve seen both the leads in previous Pocket Opera performances and with West Bay and/or San Jose opera companies. Jonathan Smucker has a clear lyric tenor voice and does an adequate job of portraying Lindoro’s limited emotional contributions to the plot.
As for Kindra Scharich, what can I say? Her lovely lyric mezzo voice is ideal for the part of Isabella and she acts the part to perfection. The flashing eyes – the mobile face – her whole body language. Here is a young woman with unbounded confidence that she can master any man – any situation – and have fun doing it. Put me down in the middle of a scene from an opera I don’t know, sung in a foreign language with no supertitles; if Kindra is on stage I’ll be supremely happy just watching and listening to her even if I have no idea what is going on.
Throughout Act I and the first part of Act II Isabella is conservatively dressed western style. In the middle of Act II is a titillating scene in which she is behind a screen on stage and changes into a provoking harem-style outfit, modest but with lots of exposed midriff. Mustafa is duly smitten with desire, but after teasing him a bit she exits with a hula-roll of her hips that has to be seen to be believed.
The opera has two significant roles for bass-baritone. Robert Stafford did a fine job portraying the vain and gullible Mustafa. Bay area audiences may have seen him before with roles for Pocket Opera, Opera San Jose, and West Bay Opera.
The role of Taddeo, Isabella’s elderly would-be lover was perfectly filled by Johnathan Spencer whom you may have seen with the Lamplighters in Gilbert & Sullivan roles such as Pooh-Bah or the Pirate King. He does a great job of rationalization when faced with the alternatives of pandering for Mustafa or being skewered on the sabre of Ali (Nicholas Aliaga), Mustafa’s lieutenant.
I hope you’re reading this before June 26, because that’s your only opportunity to see it. I plan to be at Marines Memorial Theatre at 2 pm to enjoy it all over again. Say hello to me in seat F1.
The Opera Nut
Photos: Robert Selinsky for Pocket Opera