Thursday 2 July 2015

Pop up: L'Italiana in Algeri... Or the showgirl in Vegas

Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri - Picture credit: Richard Lakos
Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri - Pop-Up Opera - Picture credit: Richard Lakos
Rossini L'Italiana in Algeri; Helen Stanley, Oskar McCarthy, Oliver Brignall, Bruno Loxton, dir: James Hurley; Pop-Up Opera at the Brunel Museum
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jun 8 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Sparky updating of Rossini's comic gem

Pop-Up opera out did themselves last night with yet another triumph. 'L'Italiana in Algeri'... or rather 'The showgirl in Vegas', performed at the Brunel Museum, was a delightful example of their ability to bring opera into the laps (sometime literally) of the audience.

Directed by James Hurley, and with the orchestra deftly played by Berrak Dyer on keyboard, the entire opera was based around the backstage area at a Vegas show. A couple of racks of dressing up clothes provided the costuming, a chest of cleverly chosen objects, projected videos, and repurposing of lighting and cables provided the props. But don't let low budget be confused with low rent, this company can hold its own against any of the big players.

Renowned for bringing opera to unusual spaces such as rooms above pubs and cafes, boats, caverns, tonight the show was in the now defunct access shaft for the Thames tunnel at Rotherhithe.

I did wonder how a circular cylinder bored into the earth would work as a concert venue, and, although small and difficult to get into (entrance was via a crawl space and a descent down what felt like rickety scaffolding), it actually worked very well. The curved walls meant that performers could turn away and sing into the wall and the audience hear reflected sound. A makeshift bar on the terrace in front of the museum provided the interval drinks.

Gioachino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868) came from a musical, although practical, background. His father played horn and his mother was a singer - the young Rossini has his first musical exposure playing with his father. As a child he was apprenticed to a blacksmith, yet also found time for musical study and even composition - there are scores attributed to him aged 12. He even wrote an opera 'Demetrio e Polibio' when he was just 13. At 14 he joined the Conservatorio di Bologna to learn cello and counterpoint, and aged 16 won the prize for 'Il pianto dArmonia sulla morte dOrfeo'.

'L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers)' was Rossini's eleventh opera and written, when he was only 20, to a libretto by Angelo Anelli. Allegedly he wrote it in a very speedy 18 days - although he left much of the recitatives and at least one of the arias to an unknown collaborator.

Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri - Pop-Up Opera - Picture credit: Richard Lakos
Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri - Pop-Up Opera
Picture credit: Richard Lakos
Pop-Up have updated this comic opera and, while they keep the original Italian (their usual quirky captions provided by Harry Percival tell the story), the setting was now backstage at Vegas where Mustafa was the casino owner and Elvira his jilted moll. Zulma now runs the show as the backstage manager. Mustafa's hold over Lindoro is a rather large gambling debt, and Isabella and Taddeo are from the American Midwest – all cowboy hats and checked shirts.

This is a comic opera so it was as much about timing and acting as it was the singing. Catrin Woodruff as Elvira and Amy J Payne (last seen in 'Ruddigore') as Zulma began the show with a very nicely nuanced duet, and they also began the second act, providing a musical framework for the rest of the opera. Bruno Loxton was fantastic as Mustafa. He attacked the over-ornamented style of Rossini for comic value, and was a perfect suave, then a perfect letch, then a perfect idiot, before his comeuppance.

Lindoro's first solo, performed by Oliver Brignall, was even more ornamented. Brignall sang this very legato, but for his duet with Mustaffa he smoothly transitioned to being very fast and punctuated, and these contrasts provided colour and interest throughout.

It is the role of Isabella, performed by Helen Stanley, that Rossini has set up to be the star, and Stanley was definitely a star. Oskar McCarthy as Taddeo, like the others, brought to life a changing character that possibly was not in the original. The sneezing quartet was amusingly sung and updated with the idea of spiking a drink – which then allowed Mustafa to be an uninhibited drunk for the pappataci scene.

If you want an evening of laugh-out-loud comic opera you can still catch 'L'Italiana in Algeri' at an unusual venue near you as it runs until October 2015.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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