Let's start with some undeniable facts. (1) Rossini's glittery opera buffa, The Italian Girl in Algiers, dazzles with an impeccable cast. It is magnificently sung. (2) There isn't one scene in this Houston Grand Opera production that doesn't wow the senses. The opera's mise-en-scène is a sumptuous riot of cartoon color and inventive stage design. Sets and costumes, conjured by Joan Guillén, are inspired. The whole show is phenomenally pleasing to the eye (and, naturally, the ear -- see fact No. 1).
But there's a third fact to weigh. (3) Spanish director Joan Font is incapable of letting his singers shine by themselves. No sooner has an aria begun when, you can be sure, some bit of background business, some mime in a lion suit or a phalanx of mincing eunuchs will upstage the artist and draw our eye away. The extras take over. This direction by distraction is annoying, to say the least.
Consider Act I, Scene 2. Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers (bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi), has tired of his nagging wife and longs for an Italian woman. With inspired comic logic, he decides to give his wife to Lindoro, his recent Italian captive (tenor Laurence Brownlee), who is pining for his lover Isabella (mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona). As the two men bicker through one of Rossini's patented patter songs, a toy boat floats by in the background. The lights flicker and the boat sinks as if pulled down by a kid in a bathtub. It's a delightful effect, and we can't take our eyes off it. When rescued Isabella displays comic mettle in her beguiling, proto-feminist "Cruel fate," she must compete with the downstage pirates ransacking through her waterlogged lingerie who put her bra on their heads like rabbit ears.
Font, artistic director of Barcelona's renowned commedia dell'arte troupe Els Comediants, has mercifully toned down this stylized, unfunny clowning since last season's Barber of Seville, which was nonstop with irritating Cirque du Soleil mime. But he still can't let a scene play out by itself. He can't help himself; he's got to interfere. The opening-night audience didn't seem to mind, however, laughing at the warmed-over shtick. At the curtain call, Mustafa's pet tiger (Ceasar Barajas) received as rousing a reception as any of the singers.
Ah, the singers. What a dreamy cast. International bel canto superstar Brownlee glided through all that treacherous Rossini filigree with sweet, effortless command. Although it was announced pre-curtain that he had injured his leg during rehearsal, he gamely limped through the opera's many physical demands. Nothing stopped his voice. Rising sensation Barcellona portrayed a feisty, no-nonsense Isabella, not only through her agile, velvety mezzo, but also her comic chops. She shimmied as she conquered the pirates during her seductive opening scene, and, later, wowed with her showstopping "Pensa alla patria," while she rallied the slaves with dreams of native Italy. Carfizzi, in poofed turban and fat pantaloons as vaudeville villain Mustafa, blustered with exquisite vocal comic timing as he sailed through his tongue-twisting arias. He was quite a sight, sitting on high and gorging on spaghetti as Isabella and Lindoro tricked him into the silly initiation rites of "Pappadacci," where he must "eat and shut up." Grammy Award-winner and former HGO studio artist baritone Daniel Belcher had a field day as buffoonish Taddeo, Isabella's much-older suitor who's also rescued from the shipwreck. To butter him up so as to influence Isabella, Mustafa appoints him "Grand Kaimakan" in a scene straight out of Gilbert & Sullivan. Outfitted with giant puppet legs and arms, Belcher's little jig was a standout.
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Maestro Carlo Rizzi didn't quite capture all of Rossini's bright musical fizz. He tamped down on the tempi, the orchestral textures sounded blurred and there was often a slight disconnect between pit and stage.
Rossini's diamond of a comedy, a smash hit at its 1813 Venice premiere and a triumph soon after all over Europe, has plenty of natural musical sparkle. Tarting it up with useless directorial touches only dulls its sheen.
East meets West in Gioacchino Rossini's comic opera, now playing through November 11 at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at the company website or call 713-228-6737 $15-$325.