HAREM SCARUM The BMO Rossini production was a rewarding summer treat that could have been better.
I've just been listening to a glorious new Harmonia Mundi CD of a live concert from the 2004 Ravinia Festival with the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and pianist Peter Serkin. One of the encores is Handel's sublime farewell duet in GiulioCesare, between Sesto (Lieberson), the son of the recently assassinated Pompey, and Sesto's mother, Cornelia. Talk about gender bending, Cornelia is sung here in a special guest appearance by Lieberson's friend, countertenor Drew Minter. I've been a huge admirer of Minter's singing since he and Lieberson appeared together in the unforgettable Peter Sellars/Craig Smith production of Giulio Cesare, in the mid-'80s. Minter played not Cornelia, but Cleopatra's dangerous kid brother Ptolomy. He's always an elegant singer, but in that production Sellars helped him reveal what decadence that elegance can mask. It was surely an object lesson for any aspiring stage director.
Minter has been directing summer opera in Boston for more than a decade, first with Opera Aperta, then, for the past six years, with Boston Midsummer Opera. There are at least two big requirements for stage directors: taste (including a keen sense of style) and inspiration. The great opera directors have both qualities, although not always consistently. Many stage directors have made careers with only one or the other. Inspiration can usually override bad judgment; and good taste can sometimes carry a production that doesn't have many ideas. But many professional stage directors have neither.
This year Minter and BMO gave us the young Rossini's TheItalian Girl in Algiers, composed when he was 21 (it was his 11th opera!). It's an energetic comedy about a wily young woman who outwits the warlord who wants to add her to his harem. There were few of the usual crotch jokes, and the production — with designer Stephen Dobay's delightful storybook silhouettes of minarets and onion domes and an arriving sailboat — was entertaining in a broadly cartoonish way. And although Minter updated the setting (our heroine, Isabella, is a fashionable dolce-vita starlet or model), he avoided any contemporary political reference. Maybe that was for the best. The problem was that although there was plenty of stage business, little of it was memorable or particularly funny, especially combined with an uncredited clunky English translation filled with flat rhymes ("To sigh with love's emotion/for one who lies across the ocean") and endless grammatical inversions ("Your request I'll not refuse"; "My feelings I'll not show"). And Minter paid little attention to the remarkable moments when Rossini actually touches on deeper and darker human emotions.
Fortunately, Rossini's effervescent, inventive score was in the best possible hands. BMO music director Susan Davenny Wyner led a crackerjack small orchestra with delicious comic timing and buoyancy — and a vivid understanding of instrumental color, giving all those marvelous wind solos room to shine. A former soprano herself, Davenny Wyner knows how to make an orchestra sing. Too bad time constraints forced the abridgement of some of the music, including the elimination of most repeats. I hated to lose a moment of Rossini's delirious Act I finale, in which the very repetitions of the characters' inner voices (they're hearing bells, drums, and bird calls) accumulate into one of opera's maddest ensembles. Even abbreviated, this was still the high point.
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