There must have been something wrong with Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri," last night at the Barns of Wolf Trap, but I'm afraid I didn't notice it -- probably because I was laughing too hard. Oh, yes, one or two of tenor John Daniecki's fortissimo high notes in his first aria had a slight metallic edge. This is a thing that seems to happen to tenors, and even so, Daniecki is that rarest of singers, a good bel canto light tenor, gifted with well-rounded tone, grace and agility, and (rarest of all) comic acting talent.
Daniecki was not, however, the singer who dominated the stage; that was mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella. From her first words, "Cruda sorte!" ("Cruel fate!"), she took command of the opera -- as she is supposed to do, since "L'Italiana" is the story of one Italian woman who was taken captive and carried off to the harem of the vanquished Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers, and all his minions. Pancella's voice and statuesque stage presence made at least this part of Rossini's fast-moving, zanily improbable farce totally credible. Tone production is even and beautifully rounded throughout the wide range of her voice, and she sings with a power that does not undermine her grace in coloratura passages. Equally impressive is her diction; every syllable she sang last night came across with total clarity and full dramatic or comic impact without compromising its tonal beauty. I hope she finds time, now or later in her career, to teach other singers how it is done.
Opposite her, in the role of Mustafa, Henry Runey is a worthy foil and adversary, splendidly macho in his swagger and totally regal in the way he takes it for granted that he will be waited on hand and foot (literally; a servant takes off his slippers when he comes indoors). His voice has a power and clarity to match Pancella's, he varies its weight impressively according to the expressive needs of the moment, his diction is clear, and he sings with a grace, rare among basses, that is ideal for bel canto opera.
A star of this production ranking equally with the leading singers is stage director Matthew Lata, who establishes the zany tone of the opera from the opening curtain and sustaines it visually throughout with props, body language and ingenious bits of stage business. As the curtain goes up for Act 1, for example, all nine members of the male chorus are seen smoking from a single hookah and the women of the harem are plying needle and thread. When the Act 2 curtain rises, the impact of the Italian woman on Algerian culture is seen immediately: The men of the chorus are smoking cigars; the women of the harem have a sewing machine. Mata also makes clever comic use of the chains with which the Italian prisoners are bound; a trapdoor from which the chorus of Italian sailors emerges, one at a time, like circus clowns from a small car; the pillows that are the main item of harem furniture; an enormous bowl of spaghetti; a bathtub; a parasol. Above all, he knows how to dispose the singers' bodies to reinforce the message of the words and music. His contribution to the overall enjoyment of this production is enormous.
So, naturally, is that of conductor George Manahan, who last night coordinated the excellent little orchestra and chorus deftly with the voices, promoting clarity but never at the expense of color and catching precisely the right pace for Rossini's nimble recitatives, arias and ensembles.
Set designer Allen Moyer established a high standard for himself in "The Journey to Rheims," the season's first opera at the Barns, but he matches it in "L'Italiana." These two are, quite simply, the best sets I have seen on this stage. James Scott's costumes and Nancy Schertler's lighting design were also excellent.
All four of the supporting singers performed well. Richard Zeller, as Taddeo, the heroine's aging would-be suitor, conveyed a fine mixture of desperate, slightly weary ardor for Isabella and fear of Mustafa and his servants. Richard Bernstein, as Haly, the chief of the palace guard, has a role that requires more acting than singing. But his big aria "Le femmine d'Italia" is the opera's central statement: "Italian women are clever and know better than others the art of making themselves loved." He sang it on opening night with wit, clarity and an excellent voice, but his real assignment was to represent the untamed Berber spirit in confrontation with this European woman. He struck macho poses, acted obsequiously toward the Bey and threatened prisoners and servants with a spear that looked like a slightly pointed rake handle.
The women in supporting roles, Laura Lamport as the Bey's rejected wife and Tichina Vaughn as her confidante, turned in good performances. Lamport is particularly good at showing her feelings through facial expression and body language, and also sings well (as does Vaughn), mostly in the big, bubbly ensembles.
There will be repeat performances tomorrow night and Sunday afternoon, but no tickets are likely to be available. It is a pity that such a fine production (comparable to anything seen here in the winter season) could not have more performances.