THIS IS NOT to denigrate any of the splendid singers in the Washington Opera's spankingly chic new producton of Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri," but the flashiest things in the show are the argyle socks, the Panama hats, the peacock feathers, a windup phonograph, a huge ottoman and a glittering, hyper-polished, red-flagged white 1929 Mercedes roadster. Was there ever a handsomer vehicle?
What, one might ask, is a 1929 car doing in a comic opera written in 1813?
Director Leon Major and designer Zack Brown have set the opera in the '20s, bringing this wisp more than a century forward, into the period and style of Noel Coward's "Private Lives." Soprano Isabella (Mimi Lerner), the title character, and tenor Lindoro (George Livings) strut and preen like Coward's Amanda and Elyot. (There's even a croquet mallet at hand.)
Sometimes this kind of cross-cultural time warp can spell disaster, throwing the tone of an opera off-base (imagine "Tristan" Woodstock-style!). But this production is a delight.
Comic opera can be profound (as in Mozart), but this one about an Italian woman who finds herself sequestered in an Algerian bey's harem isn't. It's a lightheaded caper. In another opera with a similar subject, Mozart's "The Abduction From the Seraglio," this kind of postdated production would be a mistake. That's because Mozart's music sometimes projects a passionate intensity (especially in Constanze's music) that Rossini never probes in "L'Italiana."
Rossini's opera is more an entertainment than a drama. But it makes up in brilliant display and comic gaffes what it lacks in depth.
In the title role, Lerner scales Rossini's strenuous runs and roulades in Olympian style. And unlike many coloratura mezzos, she conveys an appealing warmth of sound and manner.
Tenor George Livings as Lindoro is similarly stylish, especially in his opening aria in which he frets at his fate in exile.
The singer who comes close to stealing the show, though, is that redoubtable Washington Opera veteran, bass Francois Loup, as Mustafa, bey of Algiers. It is a wonderful part, an endearing combination of cantabile lyricism and slapstick gags. The mad zeal with which this Giovanni-come-lately Italian devours a plate of spaghetti is the match of Jackie Gleason himself.
Joseph Rescigno, the nephew of Dallas Opera director Nicola Rescigno, conducts briskly and smartly.
Not a great opera, perhaps. But a good show. L'ITALIANA IN ALGERI -- At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater this Saturday, Wednesday, January 18, 22, 26 and 30 and February 1 at 8 p.m.; Monday and January 28 at 7 p.m.; January 20 and February 3 at 2 p.m.