HOUSTON – The phrase “over the top” seems tailor-made for the Houston Grand Opera’s current production of Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers. The opera itself has more than a few moments of silliness, and Houston’s director/design team has pushed that characteristic to absurd heights (or depths, depending on your point of view).
Director Joan Font’s Three Stooges staging sets a frantic pace, and the cartoonish sets and costumes of designer Joan Guillén are a distinct complement to that point of view.
Font invents several nonsinging characters that would certainly have surprised Rossini and librettist Angelo Anelli. The most prominent are three women in black (whose purpose I was never able to discern) and a slinking animal – or, rather, a man in an animal suit – that the printed program identified as a tiger, though it had a lizard face. All four were onstage for much of the nearly three-hour opera, providing atmosphere if not sounds and meaning.
Guillén’s brightly colored sets and costumes were full of exaggeration. The men’s turbans were preposterously large and there was a very high chair for the bey of Algiers to perch on while he was doing his pappataci thing — pappataci being a mock ceremony the captives use to distract him while they make their escape.
There was more, but this should give a sense of how it went. The audience loved it; I found it mildly irritating and fatiguing.
One thing should be said about Saturday evening’s performance: This obviously was a very well-rehearsed show. The cast, chorus and supers were right on the money in coordinating and executing the many complicated ideas of Font and choreographer Xevi Dorca.
The staging and sets almost overwhelmed the musical performance and probably would have, except for the superior singing and playing by the cast and the Houston Grand Opera’s orchestra under the direction of Carlo Rizzi.
Soprano Daniela Barcellona was a powerful figure as Isabella (the Italian girl of the opera’s title). She sang strongly, and it even fit the mood of the production that she is unusually tall, towering over the men of the cast.
Chief among the males were tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Lindoro, bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Mustafà and baritone Daniel Belcher as Taddeo, all of whom sang pleasantly and created distinctive characters.
Sunday afternoon’s La Bohème was quite a different production. It was very much along traditional lines, with sets and staging by David Farley and John Caird creating a convincing down-and-mostly-out-in-Paris atmosphere.
Soprano Katie Van Kooten’s Mimì, tenor Dimitri Pittas’ Rodolfo, soprano Heidi Stober’s Musetta and baritone Joshua Hopkins’ Marcello were a well-matched team both vocally and dramatically, and they were supported by a strong group of performers in other roles.
Evan Rogister conducted an atmospheric performance by the Houston Grand Opera orchestra and chorus.
This was one Bohème that never seemed routine; it touched me deeply despite its great familiarity.
Houston’s Italian Girl will have further performances on Wednesday night and Sunday afternoon. La Bohème will be repeated Saturday afternoon and evening.