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St. Pete Opera visits ‘Algiers’ by way of Italy

Bill DeYoung



St. Petersburg Opera Company, "The Italian Girl in Algiers," dress rehearsal. Photos by Bill DeYoung.

Premiering Friday at the Palladium Theater: An expansive tale of romance, intrigue, suspense, laughter, confusion and a whole lot of creative fibbing aboard a very large ship on the high seas.

It’s not Anything Goes, and it certainly isn’t The Love Boat.

A surprise at the end of Act 1. Said director Ben Robinson: “For about 90 percent of this cast, this is the first time doing this piece. It’s not performed that often. So for them, it’s getting used to something that’s incredibly difficult to sing.”

Both of those ocean-going love-fests, however, owe a debt of gratitude to L’italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers), the 1813 opera by Gioachino Rossini. It’s the newest St. Petersburg Opera production – June 2, 4 and 6 in Hough Hall.

Rossini, the Italian composer perhaps best known for The Barber of Seville, was just 21 years old when he wrote the music to a libretto by Angelo Anelli, the story of a wealthy Algerian ruler who becomes bored with his wife, and orders his henchmen to find him a hot-blooded Italian girl.

The Italian Girl in Algiers is what’s known as operatic dramma giocoso (“drama with jokes”).

“What I think is incredible about this piece is that at 210 years old there are characters that we absolutely know who they are,” stage director Ben Robinson explained after a dress rehearsal, with full orchestra, Tuesday night.

“This is about rich people being aboard a ship, and how they behave and interact with the crew and the staff, and all these different people that are in their circuit. It’s amazing how something that’s this age – and is opera, of all things – is still just so emotionally resonant.”

The singing, of course, is all in Italian, with “supertitles” above the stage providing English translations.

You might not need them.

It’s not a love triangle, insisted Robinson, but a “love pentagon” all about “how these different characters relate to each other. Ultimately, it comes down to playing with these very funny tropes that we know – and setting it, of course, to really delicious music.”

From left Patrick McNally, Stephanie Doche, Andrew Allan Hiers, Laurel Semerdjian, Holly Flack, Lloyd Reshard and Andrew Morstein.

The Algerian “bey” is Mustafa (sung by Andrew Allan Hiers), who’s married to Elvira (Holly Flack) but has his eye on the title character, Isabella (Stephanie Doche), who’s on the ship with her traveling companion Taddeo (Patrick McNally). Then there’s Lindoro (Andrew Morstein), in love with Isabella and caught in the middle of Mustafa’s machinations and the chaos that comes with.

“When you compare this to Rossini’s later operas,” Robinson explained, “it’s really the same characters: It’s the bumbling buffoon of a bass, it’s the tenor/lover, it’s the mezzo soprano who’s the smartest person on the stage and who understands everything, and then these comic characters.”

Sforzini onscreen.

St. Pete Opera artistic director Mark Sforzini conducts the orchestra, which is hidden behind the elaborate aqua blue set by Frank Chavez. The singers can see him via closed-circuit video, on monitors discreetly mounted in the auditorium.

As director, Robinson chose to costume his cast in contemporary dress – Mustafa, for example, is wearing the white linen suit of the arrogant rich; Isabella and Taddeo are dressed in casual “cruise” clothes.

“In my opinion opera, which has survived for 400 years, through pandemics and the like, is something that should be constantly re-invented,” Robinson said. “An audience nowadays has a choice between sitting at home watching Netflix or coming to a live theater. And I think that they expect a different level of experience when they come to a theater.

“To me, I want to keep this art form that I love being as relevant as possible. Because I think that’s how it’s going to survive and thrive for the next 400 years.”

Find ticket information for The Italian Girl in Algiers here.



























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