To an effervescent house, The Santa Fe Opera presented opera buffa at its finest on Saturday night: In L'italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) by Gioachino Rossini, cartoonish buffoonery met satire and jaunty jokes while maintaining the skill necessary to perform a nimble and lush Italian score well. After last week's terrifying, breakdown-inducing Doctor Atomic, there was nothing more welcome at the Crosby Theatre than laughter.
Rossini, a total Taylor Swift of his time (he quickly rose to superstardom as an adolescent, collaborated heavily with and/or stole heavily from still-anonymous colleagues, then retired at age 37 after writing 39 hit operas), penned L'italiana in 27 days at age 21. The piece, from its acrobatic score (here conducted energetically by Corrado Rovaris) to its satirical story and simple libretto, bubbles over with optimism and goof.
The premise is simple and subversive (probably not because Rossini wanted to be particularly political in 1813, but because role reversal is just funny): The Italian Lindoro, a baby-faced and dextrous but sometimes reedy Jack Swanson, is kidnapped in Algeria and enslaved by Mustafá (Scott Conner). Isabella, Lindoro's beautiful and fiery fiancee (Daniela Mack), goes to rescue him in a plane, with the hapless Taddeo tagging along (that's Patrick Carfizzi, whom we just want to hug). Mustafá has already decided, however, that he's going to marry Lindoro off to his own wife, and tasks his first in command with finding him an Italian girl to marry. They all end up in the same room. Hilarity ensues.
Humorless snobs beware: This is not the opera for you. Like, at all. If you think you should sit there alternately scowling, muttering or in intense reverie but should never be simply amused and delighted, don't even bother with this one.
To folks who don't hate their lives and don't take everything so seriously: See this STAT.
After the lights dim but before anyone even sets foot onstage, during the overture, there's movement on the plaza to the left of the stage—a lit-up miniature biplane bops around. As it comes into the theater, we see it's on top of a long stick held by a particularly solemn opera employee in an aviator cap. The house erupts in applause as it meanders, bumblebee-style, down the aisle and out of sight into the other plaza; I scribble in my notebook, "CLAPPING FOR TOYS." This already feels good.
(Any time the biplane appears onstage again—there are three more instances—everyone cheers. The sheer joy this room of grown-ass adults expressed at candy-painted modes of transportation was nothing short of refreshing.)
In a prelude talk presented by Cori Ellison, she gave the requisite "it's a product of its time" disclaimer for the arguably racist plot. She then pointed out that, though Rossini's works are highly critical of pompousness and stuffy old masters, they're also virtuosic compositions that require the most talented singers and musicians. (I'm reminded of how parody master Weird Al Yankovic staffs only the best musicians in his backup band; just because the work is satirical doesn't mean there is any room for mediocrity.)
Appropriately, the principals in L'italiana do not disappoint. First and foremost, of course, is Mack's Isabella, who must be a formidable performer and beautiful and charming to fully convey the role. An effortless actress as well as an athletic singer, there's no want here—we believe Mustafá when he sings, "What a morsel for a sultan," but also root for her cunning and wile when she decides to get what she wants. She's never quite just a wanton harlot, of course; even while taunting Mustafá with red panties, she remains deeply in love with Lindoro. Then, when she is joined by Mustafá's wife Elvira (Stacey Geyer), the women gas each other up in the best way, marvelous depictions of one man's two girls who have now found each other and gleefully @ each other to no end.
Rich, syrupy tones from bass Conner's Mustafá and bass-baritone Carfizzi's Taddeo are only made better by their theatrical facial expressions and physical comedy (definitely bring your opera glasses and zoom in). The third suitor, Lindoro, is played by Swanson—and if he's a glimpse of what millennial opera stars will look and sound like, we're even bigger opera fans now than ever before. Though the tenor probably only started shaving last year, his athletic and indulgent cadenzas are enthralling, if sometimes thin. That being said, it becomes clearer that the slight lack of substance plays right into the role; paired with Mustafá and Taddeo, he is indeed the youngest and the least mature. By the end of the performance, we perhaps even preferred his spritely tones.
Every member of the cast uses their entire bodies at all times to delightful effect. Swanson in particular is hilarious with his awkward dances that would be better placed in a dim club, and there is one scene in which—I shit you not—the entire ensemble dabs. It's perched on the edge of a slippery slope into appropriative stupidity, but thanks to the company's self-awareness, doesn't slide that way. These characters are ridiculous, and the creators of this opera's aesthetic know that they're ridiculous. No better way to be weird than to just be weird.
Like last year's The Golden Cockerel, this one doesn't miss out on an opportunity to poke fun at the current presidential administration while still (mostly) coloring within the lines—highlighting an idiotic leader convinced of his immense prowess when everyone around him is secretly laughing. The trope was only once a bit heavy-handed; overall, it was amusing to think, "Wow, Mustafá had might as well sing that he's a very stable genius"—only to see nine golden MUSTAFA signs carted onstage, hung on palm trees and held in guards' arms. At least Mustafá has the redeeming quality of being funny.
For those in search of buoyancy without flippancy, for a well-performed piece that doesn't act like a heart-anchor, L'italiana could be precisely what you should order—with extra Parmesan, please.
L'italiana in Algeri: Four performances through Aug. 17. $47-$310. Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive, 986-5900, santafeopera.org.