The Italian Girl in Algiers: The Art of Seduction

Celebrating its 20th season, the Opera Pacific presents The Italian Girl in Algiers at Segerstrom Hall in the Orange County Performing Arts Center on January 26, 28 and 29.

Top: Kristine Winkler as 'Elvira', Kneeling: Barry Banks as 'Lindoro', Jossie Perez as 'Isabella', Kristin Rothfuss as 'Zulma', Steven Condy as 'Taddeo' and Richard Bernstein as 'Mustafa'

Director Edward Hastings makes his Opera Pacific debut with a crowd-pleasing adaptation of Gioacchino Rossini's comic masterpiece The Italian Girl in Algiers.  Originally set in the early 1800s when travel by sea was the main form of transportation, this two-act production is cleverly retold in the late 1920's aviation era.

The Italian-born Rossini, who penned more than 30 operas (all before age 37!) including William Tell and The Barber of Seville, adeptly weaved this tale about the power struggle between men and women.  It seems that even back in the day, women knew the value of their beauty and how to use it to get what they want.

Jossie Perez as 'Isabella'

Acclaimed mezzo-soprano Jossie Perez leads an all-star cast in the title role of Isabella, a sexy, pioneering aviator who crash lands in Algiers, only to find her long lost fiance and herself held captive by the horny and corrupt Bey of Algiers.  The story plays out more like a love square than a love triangle with unrequited love all around. 

At the top of this love chain is the egomaniacal ruler Mustafa, played hilariously by bass baritone Richard Bernstein (Nicholas Phan assumes role 1/29).  He is a violence bent leader who also fancies himself quite the ladies man (think Saddam Hussein crossed with Hugh Hefner).  Mustafa also deplores disloyalty. Any and all dissenters face death by a sharpened spear!  This explains why Mustafa's trusted captain, Haly (basso cantante Todd Robinson), jumps at his beck and call.

The show opens with Mustafa explaining to Haly that he has grown sick and tired of his loyal wife, Elvira (soprano Kristine Winkler).  Elvira tries in vain to convince Mustafa of her true love for him and why he should keep her.  But the arrogant and heartless leader will have none of it.  Mustafa reveals his plans to marry her off to Lindoro, his Italian slave. And he commands Haly to find him a new love interest.  But not any girl will do.  Mustafa wants an Italian beauty! 

Barry Banks as 'Lindoro', Richard Bernstein as 'Mustafa' and Steven Condy as 'Lindoro'

While Haly reluctantly marches off in search of this girl, Lindoro (tenor Barry Banks) enters the scene singing about his long-lost true love, Isabella.  Banks' masterful rendition of 'Languir per un Bella' proves why he is much in demand on international opera stages.  His spine-tingling vocal gymnastics leave no doubt that Lindoro is in love!  But unbeknownst to him, Mustafa has other plans.  Upon learning of the Bey's intentions to marry him off to Elvira, Lindoro tries to plead his case to Mustafa.  For every reason he gives against the impending marriage, Mustafa comically responds with reasons why the two are a match made in heaven.  The master and slave eventually reach a deal.  Mustafa agrees to set Lindoro free only if he takes Elvira with him to Italy.

The scene changes to a deserted beach where a plane has crashed.  Isabella emerges from the wreckage lamenting her awful luck.  Here she is traveling the globe in search of Lindoro only to end up on some remote island with Taddeo (Steven Condy), who makes no secret about his desire for her. 

At this point Perez gets to showcase her vocal talents with 'Cruda Sorte! Amor Tiranno!'.  The sorrowful cavatina, as do many of Isabella's arias, requires the 28-year-old Perez to utilize much of her lower vocal range.  She pulls this off with varying degrees of success.  At times, the orchestra drowns her voice while Condy's baritone powers through.

After the crash, Isabella and Taddeo don't have much time to lament their fate.  Haly and his army quickly descend upon them.  Their tongues and tails wag at the mere sight of Isabella.  Haly breaks into glee believing his mission is over-- he's found Mustafa's new wife!  Isabella and Taddeo are taken hostage.

Richard Bernstein as 'Mustafa' and Jossie Perez as 'Isabella'

Mustafa is elated at the news.  But Isabella finds him repulsive.  At first sight, she turns away in disgust as though he was the devil.  But Isabella believes all men are creatures that she can beguile with her charms, allurement and beauty (think Beyonce' or Angelina Jolie).  And, sure enough, by a simple stroke of Mustafa's ego, Isabella soon has the bewildered ruler eating out of her hands.

Isabella soon concocts a scheme involving booze to regain her freedom.  She even calls on her fellow native prisoners to aid in her escape.  Standing before them, draped in an Italian flag, Isabella tells the wide-eyed men that only through patriotic expression, desire and courage will truth triumph. 'We'll show the world what Italians are made of in the face of peril!'

With the help of Elvira and her mistress Zulma (mezzo-soprano Kristin Rothfuss), Isabella, Lindoro and Taddeo eventually make their escape.  The befuddled Mustafa then swears off Italian women and begs his wife for forgiveness.  The show closes with Mustafa singing about the painful lesson he's learned: 'No matter whether you serve or rule' a woman can make you a fool!'

Rossini's light and swift melodies and arias push the pace of the story.  And under the direction of John DeMain, Opera Pacific's 38-member orchestra keeps in step with the action on stage. 

David Woolard's muslim-themed costumes are background characters in and of themselves.  In one hilarious scene, Taddeo is made a glorified bodyguard to Mustafa and must wear a turban so heavy he nearly falls with each and every step.

Originally designed and created for the Santa Fe Opera, this production utilizes a pop up set to ingenious results.  Robert Innes Hopkins' bare, yet, imaginative, the storyboard backdrop rises from the stage floor to reveal the interior of Mustafa's palace.  It then lowers leaving two palm trees signaling the beach where Isabella and Taddeo crash landed their plane.  Christopher Reay designed the lighting.

Ticket prices range from $27 - $191.  Call 714-556-ARTS (2787)

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