Illness intrudes on otherwise-splendid staging of Rossini's 'Italian Girl'

Opera Review

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Opera is the realm of song, but for Rossini rhythm ruled. His madcap opera, "L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers)" opens with pizzicato in the overture and builds with pitter-patter and cadential singing in which you'd be hard pressed to identify melody. There are some splendid arias, but what propels this comic opera is energy and rhythm. Add to this that "Italian Girl" is an ensemble opera, with seven main singers meshing, and one piece out of whack can have a significant effect on the whole. That was the case with the Pittsburgh Opera's production at the Benedum Center Saturday, even with a cast that included the brilliant mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux (Isabella) and the fantastic antics of lyric bass Paolo Pecchioli (the Bey Mustafa).

The reason was (again) a singer getting ill: tenor William Burden. A regional company can't afford to keep full covers on board like the Metropolitan Opera can, but you might think the Pittsburgh Opera could grab a tenor somewhere. Burden was set to sing Lindoro, voiced for a specialized species of the tenor genus called light lyric -- capable of floating high in the stratosphere. They are almost as rare as heldentenors.

So, the company's solution was a desperate one. One of the younger resident artists in the Pittsburgh Opera Center, Dean Kokanos, is a budding light lyric tenor who was the vocal cover for the show. That meant he was learning the role and watching Burden, but not taking part in the staging. So he sang in the orchestra pit while Burden acted the part (and sang the lower-pitched recitatives).

'The Italian Girl in Algiers'
  • Who: Pittsburgh Opera
  • Where: Benedum Center, Downtown
  • When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday
  • Tickets: Start at $16
  • More information: 412-456-6666
  • Also: Vivica Genaux gives a benefit concert Wednesday at the Pittsburgh Opera building in the Strip District at 6 p.m., with dinner following. $100; 412-281-0912, ext. 204.

It's clear that Kokanos, a Pittsburgh native who studied at Duquesne University and Carnegie Mellon University, has a fine career ahead of him. From "Languir per una bella" onward, a delightfully light and fluid legato voice emanated from below. But the ruse was too much for even the regular suspension of disbelief, and the disconnect that resulted when Lindoro sang with other characters dealt the chemistry a serious blow. Kokanos should have been placed more in the center of the pit, but I am not convinced it would have made a huge difference. The action was funny, but never fully engaging; energy was low until the finales when Rossini's famed crescendos took over.

It's a shame, too, because Burden did an excellent job of acting the role ÂÂ-- and because the production otherwise was splendid. Stage director Chris Alexander tweaked the plot nicely with Isabella as a flapper-era, Amelia Earhart-like aviatrix who crash-lands in Algiers and is captured by the Turks rather than arriving via shipwreck.

Designer Robert Hopkins fashioned the set as one of those neat, old pop-up books about exotic places.

One runs out of superlatives to use for Genaux. The Alaskan native, who spent time in Pittsburgh studying with Claudia Pinza, has such micro-control of her instrument that it seems her trachea employs nanotechnology. Every little vocal wiggle, turn and trill was so exact, yet bursting out of it was a lovely, slightly dark timbre. Isabella fits her personality as well as her range -- she is in control of every situation, but charmingly so.

Pecchioli in his company debut, played a fey Bey and displayed a rich, booming voice. He was an absolute riot "working out" to impress the new addition to his harem in Isabella.

Deborah Selig sang Elvira with impressive pipes. Earle Patriarco's focused, potent voice was the only non-buffoon aspect to his character Taddeo, the wannabe lover of Isabella. Jonathan Beyer's Ali (Haly) was remarkably polished and his aria "Le Femmine d'Italia" on target.

With Katherine Drago strong as Zulma, hilarious eunuchs and guards and a precise orchestra under Antony Walker (the violins passing numerous tests), it was a night so close to being great, but never quite getting in gear.

I am told the options for the remainder of shows are either for Burden to recover or for Kokanos to take the stage. I write reviews, not predictions, but either one of these choices likely will improve the run.

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at . He blogs at Classical Musings .


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