Devos, Liesbeth


ItalianaGioachino Rossini - L’Italiana in Algeri

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2013 | Bruno Campanella, Emilio Sagi, Enkelejda Shkosa, Carlo Lepore, Daniele Zanfardino, Mario Cassi, Liesbeth Devos, Julie Bailly, Laurent Kubla | Grand Théâtre de Liège, 9 February 2013 - ARTE Live Web

The Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège have a good track record with Rossini and bel canto work, particularly on works that have a more comic edge. One of Rossini’s big melodramas or opera seria works would present a greater challenge and require some big guns to do it justice, but as they demonstrated most recently with the little known early Rossini opera L’Equivoco Stravagante, with a little bit of resource and imagination, there can be considerable colour and entertainment to be drawn out of the lighter Rossini dramma giocoso works. The requirements for L’Italiana in Algeri lie somewhere in-between. It’s a popular comedy, but like Il Barbiere di Sevilla it also requires a good balance between strong singers, comic timing and a sense of style or panache to really make it work. Liège do pretty well on all fronts in their latest production.

Director Emilio Sagi puts the emphasis of the production on style, and there’s good reason for that. Much of the comedy of L’Italiana in Algeri (An Italian Girl in Algiers) relies upon the premise of the exoticism and glamour of its Eastern setting, in the palace of Mustafà, the Bey of Algiers, with his seraglio of wives, slaves and eunuchs. The Bey however is tired of his wife Elvira and wants Haly, the captain of his corsairs, to procure an Italian wife for him, so the opera also has to present the idea of Italian style and women as being just as exotically attractive as a North African harem. You can of course make even that idea alone funny - and there’s lots of spaghetti eating here to play with that in the Pappataci scene - but the idea of Italian exoticism works best if you set it, as Emilio Sagi does here, in the glamorous age of the Dolce Vita of the 1960s.


The production achieves this impressively with the simplest of means. Enrique Bordolini’s sets provide a few pointed Byzantine arches to give a flavour of an Eastern palace, working with the colouration of Eduardo Bravo’s lighting and Renata Schussheim’s costume designs to make this a most attractive production that works perfectly with the playful tone of Rossini’s writing for L’Italiana in Algeri. There’s solid work from Bruno Campanella in the pit that is similarly well-attuned to the content. This is consequently a sophisticated Rossini production that emphasises how well the composer could bring his musical resources, his sense of structure and timing to bear to play out a series of entertaining and sometimes silly comic situations. It is not as raucously funny as it might be - some of the recitative is cut, reducing the effectiveness of the situation between Lindoro and Elvira - but the direction and the tone established in Sagi’s production is consistent and entertaining.

With only a few minor reservations, the casting is also excellent and certainly as good as it ought to be for this opera. Liège get the right balance of freshness from their regular Italian opera regulars for the secondary roles (solid performances from Julie Bailly, Liesbeth Devos and Laurent Kubla as Zulma, Elvira and Haly) and combine it with experienced singers in the more challenging main roles. Not so much Daniele Zanfardino - last seen in Liège’s production of Rossini’s L’Equivoco Stravagante - as Lindoro, but he has the right timbre of voice for a Rossini tenor, if not quite the strength or range. That’s not so much of an issue here, and he copes well with the demands of the role.

Much more critical to establishing the tone of the dramma giocoso is the range and the interplay between Isabella and the Bey, and the Royal Opéra de Wallonie had two excellent singers in these roles. Carlo Lepore’s singing is beautifully grave and musical, his bass working well alongside the other singers, round out in the duets and ensembles. In acting terms, his handling of Mustafa’s comic potential was also perfect, suitably commanding, faintly ridiculous and comically lecherous. He needs however a feisty Isabella to be a bit more spirited than the comparatively weak Elvira that he wants to get rid of, but she also has to be demanding enough to knock him into place, and that’s exactly what you got with Albanian mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa.

That’s about all you want from L’Italiana in Algeri - a sense of style, a little bit of exoticism, a bit of unstrained comedy and some good singing that doesn’t stand out or draw attention just for the sake of ornamentation. The latest Liège production to be broadcast via Internet Streaming, L’Italiana in Algeri can be enjoyed for free for the next few months on the ARTE Live Web site.

InimicoBaldassare Galuppi - L’inimico delle donne

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège 2011 | Rinaldo Alessandrini, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Filippo Adami, Federica Carnevale, Liesbeth Devos, Juri Gorodezki, Priscille Laplace, Anna Maria Panzarella, Alberto Rinaldi, Daniele Zanfardino | Dynamic

Born on the island of Burano in the Venetian Republic, Baldassare Galuppi (1706 – 1785) is another case of a composer who was highly popular and successful in his own lifetime, but whose work soon fell into obscurity after his death. After a spell in London at the Kings Theatre, Galuppi, nonetheless served two terms as maestro di capella at St Marks in Venice, spent several years in Russia in-between as court composer for Catherine the Great, and left behind over a hundred operas, few of which have ever been revived. L’inimico delle donne is therefore a welcome opportunity to hear performed one of the later works for which Galuppi was celebrated in his day, the opera buffa.

Galuppi’s early work was in the fashionable opera seria style of the day, like everyone else working to librettos by Metastasio, but it was in the dramma giocoso, working in collaboration with the playwright Carlo Goldoni that Galuppi found a form more in tune with his style of composition that not only achieved great success and popularity, but left behind a certain amount of influence that can be seen in the works of Haydn (Lo Speziale, with a libretto also by Goldoni, and Il mondo della luna, for example) and Mozart, particularly on the style of Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail. It’s the latter than comes to mind often in L’inimico delle donne’s exploits of a lady who has arrived on an exotic foreign land and becomes embroiled in the romantic and political affairs of its ruler, but influential musical touches – particularly the ensemble finales, a characteristic that Galuppi would become known for – are also delightfully evident here.

It’s not Goldoni, but Giovanni Bertati (known also as the librettist for Cimarosa’s The Secret Wedding) who adapted the Zon-zon, principe di Kibin-kanka for Galuppi’s 1771 opera, and indeed, much of the buffa conventions are all in place here in L’inimico delle donne (“The Enemy of Women”). Agensina has been shipwrecked on the oriental land of Kibin-kan-ka with her father, escaping from rich noble suitors that pursue her, since she has a profound dislike for men. Zon-zon, the prince of Kibin-kan-ka, is obliged by the law of the land to get married, but similarly he doesn’t like women, finds their scent revolting and considers them about as attractive as toads. Inevitably, after squaring up to each other when they are introduced, Zon-zon begins to find Agnesina not quite as disgusting as the suitable women lined-up for him by his retainers, while Agnesina for her part finds herself strangely flattered by the attentions of this foreign prince.

Inimico

I say inevitably, but clearly there’s nothing inevitable about it except in terms of convention. There’s no real reason why Zon-zon would find Agnesina any more attractive than the other women presented to him, and there’s no reason why Agnesina would put aside her lifelong distaste for men either, but it’s just accepted that this is the natural course of events. As characters, they are far from fully-formed or convincing, and the situations – for all the comic potential they hold – are likewise scarcely developed and simply just resolve themselves. The most amusing moments occur when Agnesina’s father, Geminiano, is called upon to pretend to be the Idol Kakakinkara Kinkanaka in order to announce the marriage of Zon-zon and Agnesina as being the will of the gods – a deus ex machina which helps out Zon-zon as well as helping to make the plot work – and there is some entertaining rivalry when Xunchia is called upon to instruct the innocent foreign girl in the arts of love (she could do with some fashion tips too), but little of this is really exploited or even carried through to a satisfactory conclusion.

Surprisingly, the potential isn’t really exploited in musical terms either. The opera is spritely paced, with lively Baroque dance rhythms, but it’s all fairly conventional and not greatly aligned to emotional expression other than through slight variations of tempo. There’s very little recitative and even arias are brief and restrained, with no high-flown sentiments or great displays of vocal dexterity, but this treatment seems well-suited to the light-hearted subject. It’s also possible that Baroque music specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini has cut back on some of the excesses in his arrangement of the work to make this a bit more accessible in a modern context. Even so, the opera remains musically interesting, particularly in how horns and woodwind are employed in the score.

L’inimico delle donne is a modest affair then that in itself is not particularly funny, but there’s a lot of fun that can be drawn from it with the right kind of staging, and every effort is certainly put into it in this rare 2011 production by the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège. The stage direction by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera respects the period, the tone and the buffa conventions with its colourful Mikado-like Oriental setting, though it introduces a few twists of its own in the form of shadow projections in the background. These work well for the shipwreck sequence at the start, but rather strangely set the futile Turandot-like (song instead of riddle) attempts of the Court ladies to win the hand of Prince Zon-zon to back-projected sporting events. Overall however, the tone is perfect, the costumes appropriately outlandish and exaggerated, with some fun and imaginative props.

The music and the staging are well judged then, but what helps carry it all off are the performances. The singing is terrific from Anna Maria Panzarella (who will be familiar from various Rameau productions) as Agnesina and from Filippo Adami and Zon-zon, who both enter into the spirit of it in their acting performances without over-egging it. It’s Agnesina’s father Geminiano however who has some of the best lines and comic moments in the opera, and he’s wonderfully played by Alberto Rinaldi. There are no weak elements either in the Court ladies or retainers to the prince, with Liesbeth Devos standing out as the feisty Xunchia.

Released by Dynamic on DVD only, the quality of the image is generally good but not all that impressive. It doesn’t look like the production was shot in HD, but presented in Standard Definition NTSC it’s still quite good. Contrast is high, and there is some slight shimmering breaking up lines, but the colourful staging looks good and the camera work captures the occasion well. Audio tracks are LPCM stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 and there’s a lovely tone to the orchestration and clarity in the singing. There is a little bit of ambient noise and stage clatter and one or two pops on the recording, but nothing that detracts from the overall quality. Subtitles are in Italian, English, French, German and Spanish.