The fact that opera is a total art form doesn’t mean that it can’t be totally silly. L’italiana in Algeri, the twisted Rossini farce that Opera Santa Barbara presented at the Granada on the weekend of March 6, may contain some sentimental love arias, but don’t let them fool you: Entering this operatic world is like stepping inside a giant cuckoo clock. The required level of suspension of disbelief defies calculation; discount what’s unlikely, improbable, and implausible about the story, and there’s nothing left. On the other hand, students of Orientalism, that make-believe science in which the world divides neatly between us and them, will have much to ponder. And yet L’italiana in Algeri remains a great opera and a great work of art — just be sure to keep it where it belongs, in the section marked “purest fantasy.” If your critical faculties consent to slumber, it’s quite possible that your senses will be charmed. At its best, L’italiana in Algeri provides a bridge between the dialectical intricacies of Mozart and the comic chaos of the Marx Brothers.
All the action takes place in the seaside palace of the Bey Mustafà, ably sung and performed by Stefano de Peppo. After a delightful overture, Mustafà enters and establishes himself as a tough customer, especially when it comes to the dames. He’s the alpha male of this palace, and that’s that. He’s sick of his wife, Elvira (Molly Wilson), and he’s ready to marry her off to his Italian captive Lindoro (the excellent tenor Javier Abreu). Lindoro already has a true love, Isabella (Eve Gigliotti), and by a titanic coincidence, she is captured and brought to the same palace along with Taddeo (Luis Orozco), an older and much more ineffectual suitor of the oh-so seductive Isabella. Isabella will answer everyone’s problems, only we don’t quite know that yet. Why? Because she’s an Italian woman. She eats polygamous Muslim barbarians for breakfast, presumably al fresco.
Both Gigliotti and Abreu played their roles beautifully, wringing every last smile and laugh out of a multiplicity of duets and larger ensembles. The goofy shock that ensues when Lindoro first walks in on Isabella and Mustafà generated a kind of delirium that then saturated the rest of the act. “Lindoro,” her eyes seemed to say, “What are you doing here?” The finale of act one must be one of the most eccentric pieces of music in all of opera, with Rossini borrowing liberally from Mozart’s bag of tricks and adding in a few boom-booms and oompahs of his own.
In addition to the fine principals, this production featured an energetic and well-rehearsed chorus. Whether they were portraying a disconcertingly deep-voiced gang of eunuchs or a loyal band of Italian seamen, they kept their turbans on and their suspenders straight while singing some hilarious refrains. In Act Two, Isabella and Lindoro seize control by inventing the phony Italian honor of the “pappataci,” a nonsense word that in this context stands for cuckold. Mustafà, silly bey that he is, can’t help getting caught in this childish trap for his vanity. It’s all a funny, ridiculous excuse to neutralize the bey’s power while their ship literally comes in. Like the outwitted and overmatched Mustafà, the audience found this italiana too much for their meager reason, and, as the last silly notes were sung, the sound of serious applause filled the theater.