Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Genaux, Brownlee and Vinco Romp in Rossini’s “L’Italiana”: Garnier Opera House, Paris – October 8, 2010

October 20th, 2010

[Note from William: This is the second in the series of four reports I am posting on performances I attended in Great Britain and France in early October 2010.]

The Opera National de Paris has, since the opening of their new larger opera house at the site of the Bastille, has used the glistening Opera Garnier for ballets and for operas that work best when presented on a smaller scale. Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”, with its modest sized orchestra and zany comic situations, has seemed a good fit in the Garnier.

[Below: the Grand Staircase of the Garnier Opera House.]

Rumanian production designer Andrei Serban in 1998 developed a wild and wacky production of  “L’Italiana” – Rossini’s first big hit – for mezzo Jennifer Larmore. The production, not totally without controversy, has returned to the Garnier in three revivals over the past 12 years.

Its 2004 and 2010 revivals are associated with Alaskan mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux. A specialist in baroque and bel canto opera, Genaux has developed a special rapport with the mezzo roles within the operas of Rossini and Bellini. (For my review of Genaux’ Romeo, see: Beautiful Singing in Bellini’s “Capuleti”: Pittsburgh Opera – May 3, 2008.)

[Below: Vivica Genaux, edited image, based on a Virgin Records/Harry Heleotis photograph, courtesy of vivicagenaux.com.]

I have reviewed Genaux doing Isabella in “L’Italiana” before, in San Francisco in the popular Robert Innes Hopkins/Christopher Alexander production first seen at Santa Fe Opera. (For a review of the Hopkins/Alexander production in San Francisco, see: San Francisco Opera: Santa Fe’s L’Italiana in Algeri September 30, 2005.)

But it is not just Parisians and San Franciscans who have seen Genaux’ Isabella. She has also performed the role at Florentine Opera (1994), San Diego Opera (1997), Anchorage Opera (2005), Minnesota Opera (2007), Teatro Regio, Torino, Italy (2009) and Pittsburgh Opera (2009). She is scheduled to perform it next at Wiener Staatsoper in May, 2011.

My review of the San Francisco Opera performance details some of my thinking on “L’Italiana” – namely, that we give a lot of thought about at whom and what the satirical wit of Rossini and his librettist Angelo Anelli was directed. If we are firmly grounded in what Anelli intended as the butt of the joke (some believe Anelli, whom many of us will know was an Italian politician, intended the grotesquely-drawn Mustafa to be a caricature of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French emperor), there is less chance that we will be find ourselves carelessly “off the mark”.

Anelli’s Libretto as Pasha Basher

The decline of the Ottomon Empire, which ostensibly controlled the Western Mediterranean’s North African shore, created many concerns for the Southern European states. Such comic operas as Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” (1781) and two operas written on Anelli’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” (Luigi Mosca’s in 1807 and Rossini’s in 1813) had political messages, beyond their comic situations.

The Italian merchants and sailors into the early 19th century had to deal with pirates protected by the Ottomon vassal states. Those pirates were a sufficient nuisance that President Thomas Jefferson of the young United States mobilized the U. S. Marines to fight on the Shores of Tripoli. Thus a comic opera in which Mustafa’s main aide-de-camp Haly controls the pirates and takes Italians as slaves has a bite to it.

Bey Watch

That an Italian woman might inject herself into such a dangerous situation and emasculate Mustafa, the Algerian Bey, was a very funny proposition. However, as I have stated elsewhere, the Ottomon pashas and beys have disappeared into history, and the Turks, Algerians and others who now rule the former Ottomon lands are not the heirs of the old Ottomon ways.

For this reason, I have argued that productions of this opera stay in the past, such as the famous production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, rather than try to set the time period too close to the present day. (For a review of a performance in the Ponnelle production, see: The Italian Girl in D.C. – May 18, 2006.)

The Serban production, of course, does stray into contemporary times, perhaps even to the late 1990s, when it premiered. The Bey Mustafa’s portrait and headcoverings may seem to be an homage to a royal figure of such and such a country to the East, or the president-for-life of another country nearby.

But the attractive young buffo basso, Marco Vinco, from his first appearance, persuades us that the premise of the production is sufficiently fantastic, so my “Keep it in Pasha Time” argument seems not so important. (The male chorus, sometimes grotesquely clad as eunuchs, at other times as wide-shouldered Italian slaves, added to the surreality, and, surely the complexity of backstage costume changes as well.)

The Bey’s palace suggests something of a menagerie, with a ubiquitous man in a gorilla-suit addicted to sight gags and pratfalls and a zebra conveyance that the Bey and others use for transportation. (For further fauna fun, principal singers at various times carry plastic pink flamingoes.)

Eh, Paisan!

Serban appears to suggest that, if an Algerian Bey causes you trouble, send an Italian Woman to turn him into an Italian male – which, in Serban’s tongue-in-cheek stereotyping means a musclebound Mafioso immobilized by his addiction to his cell-phone.

One of the Italian males, of course, is our hero – Isabella’s betrothed, Lindoro, who, prior to the opera’s beginning, has become Mustafa’s favorite slave. The American leggiero tenor, Lawrence Brownlee, like Genaux a specialist in the bel canto comedy romantic lead roles, has become a sensation in the recent revivals of the Serban production.

A Lindoro has the unenviable task of launching into the aria Languir per una bella – a tenor showpiece that soars high into the tenor range and spends most of the aria there. Brownlee’s bravura performance hits the mark (and the high tessitura), and, resonating with the audience, he received an enthusiastic ovation.

[Below:  Vivica Genaux as Isabella and Lawrence Brownlee as Lindoro; edited image, based on a Mirco Magliocca photograph for the Opera National de Paris.]


But the title role in “Italiana” is not Mustafa nor Lindoro, but Isabella. In Serban’s conception, after an amusing shipwreck, the Italiana appears, decked out like a Milanese fashionista. Genaux in her slim fitting pants suit and carrying an upmarket purse, launched into the pyrotechnics of Cruda sorte. Genaux’ rich mezzo and comic flair (and Marina Draghici’s costume) made a vivid impression.

Of course, no determined heroine is going to fail in a Rossini comic opera. A male under the delusion that he is in command is utterly no match for a Rossini diva. Before long, Genaux’ Isabella has Vinco’s Mustafa (and his harem and entourage as well) under her spell.

[Below: the women of the harem have all adopted the dress and manners of Isabella (Vivica Genaux, center right) as she captivates the Bey Mustafa (Marco Vinco, center left); edited image, based on a Mirco Magliocca photograph for the Opera National de Paris.]

Each of the three principals in “L’Italiana” get opportunities to display their vocal talents, both solo and ensemble, including a major first act aria. Vinco’s Mustafa has the jaunty, hilariously presented Gia d’insolito ardore as his showpiece. The aria is meant to enchant the audience, and Vinco did just what Rossini wished him to do.

The end of the first act of any Rossini comic opera ends in absolute confusion, but no opera buffa has as zany an ending as “L’Italiana” with the three principals (joined by the four other second banana characters – Mustafa’s lawful wedded wife Elvira (Jael Azzaretti), her servant Zulma (Cornelia Onciouiu), Mustafa’s henchman, Haly (Riccardo Novaro) and Isabella’s companion Taddeo (Alessandro Corbelli). As if that ensemble were insufficient to leave them laughing, yet another ensemble where all collapse into one another occurs in the second act.

[Below: At a comic ensemble’s end, Mustafa (Marco Vinco, front left) falls on the divan next to Lindoro (Lawrence Brownlee, front right) who is lying atop Isabella (Vivica Genaux) with Taddeo (Alessandro Corbelli, at the top in Kamaikan’s turban) above Elvira (Jael Azzaretti); edited image, based on a Mirco Magliocca photograph for the Opera National de Paris.]

All of the supporting cast were commendable, with Novaro’s Haly singing La femmine d’Italia, one of the most Mozartean of Rossini arias, especially pleasurably.

As one would expect, the strongest impressions were made by the Vivica Genaux, Lawrence Brownlee and Marco Vinco in the three major roles. Maurizio Benini (who several weeks earlier had conducted the “Faust” performances at San Francisco Opera) led the Orchestre de L’Opera National de Paris.

[Below: the finale in which the Bey Mustafa (Marco Vinco, center on floor) has become thoroughly Italianized, to the triumphant satisfaction of Isabella (Vivica Genaux, left, in white suit); edited image, based on a Mirco Magliocca photograph, for the Opera National de Paris.]

Walking to and from the Garnier

With a whimsical performance completed, my wife and I walked the few blocks down the Rue de la Paix to the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome, our preferred hotel in Paris.

In fact, in several European cities (Paris, Hamburg, Zurich and Milan) we stay at the Park Hyatt hotels, that meet our expectations for hospitality. The pleasant operatic experience and the pleasant walk, caused me to consider how convenient these four hotels are to nearby opera houses – as if some person responsible for choosing hotel properties for the brand was actively searching a location within walking distance of an opera house.

From the Park Hyatt Milan I take a shortcut through the Galleria past Il Duomo to La Scala – only a short distance, but a pathway rich with history. The Zurich Staatsoper is a pleasant stroll along Lake Zurich from the Park Hyatt Zurich, and the Hamburg Staatsoper is only a slightly longer walk through pleasant streets from that city’s Park Hyatt.

[Below: an interior of the Garnier Opera House, Paris; resized photograph from operadeparis.fr.]

However, for selecting a hotel with wonderful service, just across the street from an opera house, I can’t think of anything that beats the Westgate Hotel in San Diego, where one simply crosses “C” Street to the Civic Auditorium, hands one’s tickets to the San Diego Opera ushers and takes one’s seat to enjoy the performance.

After the daffy menagerie in the Garnier’s “Italiana”, I reflected that San Diego’s “C” Street was the street that the Tyrannosaurus Rex terrorized in a Jurassic Park sequel. (No such terror would seem a possibility during the San Diego Opera season, but it might well have been added to Serban’s “Italiana” without seeming any more incongruous than the gorilla, zebra and the flamingoes.)

Not every Parisian street was as placid as the Rue de la Paix every evening this October, but on performance night the Garnier and surrounding area was glistening as Paris does when all is well.

As always, when either I or my colleague Tom mention any hotel or restaurant, we neither seek nor accept any gratuities or compensation for the opinions we express.

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