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'L'Italiana in Algeri': Tour De Force

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006

Washington National Opera's production of Gioacchino Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri," which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, is a smashing success -- three hours of beautiful and ceaselessly inventive music, brilliantly cast and played, shot through with giddy joy. Anybody who wants to behold what this company is capable of should attend one of the seven remaining performances, for the production likely will be talked about for many years.

Because of a longstanding cultural tendency to equate seriousness with profundity, we have only begun to take the full measure of Rossini. For me, he is among the greatest of all musical geniuses -- a unique and universal master who is simply not to be spoken of in the same breath as Bellini and Donizetti, the two very fine composers to whom he traditionally is compared.

No other creator could have invented the first-act finale of "Italiana," when the action spins gloriously out of control and language is no longer sufficient to express the loopy feelings of the characters, who are reduced (or maybe elevated) to rapid-fire onomatopoeia -- "ding! ding!" and "cra! cra!" and "tac! tac!" and that perennial favorite "boom boom boom boom boom boom boom!"

If the Three Stooges' Curly had written an opera libretto, it might have gone something like this. It is dada 100 years before dada was invented. But it is better than dada, for it is less an easy mockery of convention than a gleeful parallel universe, one stocked with great tunes. It is difficult to believe that this supremely assured comic opera was composed in less than a month -- the work of a man who had just passed his 21st birthday.

Forget about the plot, which is silly in the extreme but suffices as a launching pad for Rossini's score. (Nineteenth-century Europeans set operas in such distant lands as Africa and Turkey in rather the same way science-fiction writers used to set their stories on Mars, and with much the same understanding.) WNO has revived a production by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (last staged here in February 1998) that is attractive enough, with sandy hues and storybook castles. But it is the casting that makes this "Italiana" so memorable. It is remarkably even across the board, with no letdowns by anyone.

Still, as usual in an opera with two star roles, two singers have to be more equal than others. Mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina is a splendid, earthy and dynamic Isabella. At her not-infrequent best, she calls to mind Marilyn Horne in her prime, her huge, deep voice imbued with the richness of dark chocolate. Moreover, she has fun with her virtuosity: It is as though her breath control, her command of coloratura and her opulent sound were all terrific playthings that she loved to show off for others, especially those who have come to cheer.

Juan Diego Florez, in the role of Lindoro, spins out his melodies in a high, sweet and unfailingly elegant tenor voice. This is music of fearsome difficulty but it must never sound difficult. Florez tosses it off as if it were child's play, and he proves a dashing actor as well.

As Elvira, soprano Lyubov Petrova is more than capable of exploring the stratosphere of the role's high notes. Leslie Mutchler is a deft, funny and attractive Zulma. Ildar Abdrazakov has just the right sort of woolly bass voice and innate sense of absurdity for the role of Mustafa, and Bruno de Simone makes an ardent and amusing Taddeo. Valeriano Lanchas's adept, all-knowing portrayal of Haly rounds out the cast.

The Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus have become ever more disciplined and reliable, to the point where they are among the best house ensembles in the nation -- an accomplishment that would have seemed impossible only a decade ago. Riccardo Frizza's conducting is sure and idiomatic: He provides solid support for the singers, balances the ensembles impeccably and takes a convincing lead in the purely orchestral passages.

We hear a lot about a supposed line of demarcation between high art and pure entertainment. "L'Italiana in Algeri," to its eternal, crazy glory, gives us both.

L'Italiana in Algeri will be repeated tonight, Thursday, Sunday and May 24, 26, 30 and June 3. Call 202-295-2400 or visit http://www.dc-opera.org/

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