Italiana in Algeri in Weimar

You are in Weimar for a performance of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. What would be your reaction if the stage director and conductor, commenting in the programme on their approach to the piece, both describe it as needing strong interpretation? What is more, photographs of the production reveal that half of the cast are to be dressed as apes. Like me, you would probably fear the worst. In truth the plot and libretto of the piece are not extraordinary and I have seen some tedious productions of it. Director Tobias Kratzer is right when he argues that the attempt in the original to contrast North African with European culture is superficial. Nevertheless by turning the Algerians into a colony of apes keen to learn about the nature of the human species and, in particular, about love, he was taking a great risk. That it came off, despite an excess of stage business, was largely due to the ingenuity of the conception, the clever use of props and the energy and commitment of all of the participants. And though there was comedy galore, it was circumscribed by a sharp dramatic edge including, at the end, a transition to pathos. Mustapha was left forlorn in Algiers while his compatriots were overawed by the power and glamour of the Italians, but it was made clear that life (and love) for the evolved species is by no means Paradise.

What then of the music? Rossini’s score is by no means dull, but I have to confess that the dramatic impulse infused in it by Dominik Beykirch’s conducting was a major reason for the evening’s success. A word of praise too for his characterful playing of the fortepiano to accompany the recitatives. The singing of the cast was uniformly of a high standard. It was headed by American Tamara Gura’s rich-voiced mezzo with a body (more open to public scrutiny than most opera singers would tolerate) to match. The Chief Ape/Mustapha was vocally indisposed and the company was fortunate to lure Daniele Antonangeli from Italy to sing from the wings. With his massive bass and immaculate intonation, he was not to be outdone by those on the stage and fully entered into the spirit of the occasion. Milos Bulajic’s powerful tenor is not a natural for Rossini but, as Lindoro, he deployed it to good effect, reaching the high notes with ease and negotiating the runs. Alik Abduhayumov’s superbly sung and acted Taddeo was another highlight.