The Metropolitan Opera House is to Jean-Pierre Ponnelle what Montsalvat is to Titurel: although the Swiss director died in 1988, the Met regularly shows his productions of operas like Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito and L’Italiana in Algeri. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Because these are well-beloved stagings of not extremely popular works, the Met has been able to stage them more often than any other opera house in the world*. In any case, they still look better than most of the new productions concocted by Broadway directors presently seen in the house. I had seen it on video with Marilyn Horne, but I have to say that, under the Spielleitung of David Kneuss and the irresistible personalities gathered for this restaging, it works its spell very easily. Some may say the whole thing is over the top, but again: L’Italiana in Algeri is the dictionary definition of “over-the-top”.
Although I have never seen Elizabeth DeShong in a Rossini role, it would be surprising if she handled the Italian text as expertly as her replacement, the rich-toned and characterful Marianna Pizzolato. It is true that her mezzo is not voluminous as a big hall as the Met’s demands, her command of fioriture, warm, seductive tonal quality and, most important of all, deep understanding of Italian declamation just draw the audience to her. To make things better, she is entirely at ease with the style of acting required by Italian comedy. I had known Ms. Pizzolato only from recordings and seeing her live only increased my appreciation for her artistry. Her Lindoro was American tenor René Barbera, an intriguingly full-toned Rossini tenor with some surprisingly forceful top notes. Maybe Rossini would have found his high notes too forceful (and he could outshine his colleagues in ensemble), but it is just amazing that he is able to sing perilously high and florid lines as powerfully as he does. Moreover, he shades his voice beautifully and can hold his legato without effort. It might be too much for Lindoro, but think of the many hard-to-cast roles Mr. Barbera could be singing! At first, Ildar Abdrazakov seemed to be having a bad time with his coloratura, but he soon found his way and – if he did not reach the paramount levels of a Samuel Ramey (seriously – who does?) – he sang with consistent richness and energy. He also proved to have impecable comedy timing and never spared himself in his intent of making the best of every scene. He established an ideal partnership with Nicola Alaimo, a Taddeo imbibed in the right buffo tradition. Dwayne Croft relished his cameo as Haly and, if Ying Fang was unusually golden toned as Elvira, the truth is that the role requires a brighter edge to pierce through ensembles.
It is endearing that James Levine still has the passion for this repertoire, offering a very rich sound for an opera buffa, what makes it hard for Swiss-clock precision in ensembles, but the energy was – again – just hard to resist. In any case, _I_ did not resist long: this was simply fun.
*In the case of L’Italiana, this might not be true, for the work i understandably is far from a rarity in Italian opera houses; if you have one drop of Italian blood in your veins, you just feel it stir in your veins in Pensa alla patria!