Here's a paradox: a state-of-the-art production of a fusty old opera. Get past the sublime overture and there's precious little charm to be found in L'italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) with its mysogynistic pig of a plot. Rossini composed punchier entertainments than this and the storyline, such as it is, grates more than it ingratiates.
On the Barbary coast of Algeria the ruling Bey, Mustafà, has grown weary of his wife, Elvira, and hankers after a taste of Italian totty. (Yes, I know, but that's the level of it.) When the lovely Isabella is shipwrecked, captured and brought to the palace, his luck's in—-or so he thinks.
Garsington Opera's new staging is a feast for the eye, provided you like tagine and gelato on the same plate. George Souglides' spectacular designs, integrated with clever lighting effects by Giuseppe di Iorio, range from dancers in colour-co-ordinated hijabs to a vast illuminated staircase that undulates like a magic carpet yet more resembles a dry ski slope. In keeping with modern custom (see Lucia di Lammermoor at the ROH) he throws in a trickling water fountain that's a banker for queues at the loos.
Fatally, Will Tuckett's production gets lost within its super-chic visuals. The dazzling gloss reflects back at us, whereas true comedy should draw us in. Everything's too big and busy, and it's hard to follow any character's trajectory when the warp and weft of relationships are hidden beneath gorgeous costumes and rich fabrics.
'Principals are a mixed bag'
The hyperactive supernumeraries are an added hindrance: Tuckett doesn't trust us to focus on the text without adding sight-gags to upstage the moment. It doesn't help that more laughs are triggered by the surtitles than by the onstage antics.
Rossini veteran David Parry conducted the first night with flair, zip and lightness of touch, even though stage-pit ensemble was hit and miss and the sound in ensembles became congested. He has a cracking male chorus at his disposal, and three marvellous if underused singers in Mary Bevan (Elvira, Mustafà's wife), Katie Bray (Zulma, her attendant) and Riccardo Novaro (Taddeo, Isabella's admiring companion); but his principals are a mixed bag.
Ezgi Kutlu has a rich, near-contralto quality, but she's projects little of Isabella's necessary charm and semaphores her emotions through rolling eyes and elementary gestures. She is also given to idle shuffling around the stage—a trait Tuckett should have stamped on in rehearsals. Vocally, the Turkish mezzo was full-toned and forthright, but intonation issues were a constant discomfort.
Luciano Botekho as Isabella's true love Lindoro is a light, agile high tenor who projects an attractive personality, but I found his voice a little ungrateful and lacking in warmth. He also aspirated his rapid runs to excess, teeth chattering like a guy who's come in from the cold.
The strutting Mustafà of Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang was the opposite: he had so much vocal resonance that the words were lost and the musical line became compromised, especially when he affected anger. At least he throws himself into the comedy. He is at his best when camp—not least when decked out in turban and overgown and ready for his close-up.
L'italiana in Algeri runs in repertory at Garsington Opera until 10 July.