L'italiana in Algeri, New York Met, February 2004
Juan Diego Flórez, and  Olga Borodina in L'italiana in Algeri
Photo by Sara Krulwich

You Don't Have to Be Italian to Play l'Italiana, The New York Times, 16 February 2004
Rollicking Rossini Gem Revived at Met, Associated Press, 15 February 2004
It's hard not to love 'L'Italiana', New York Daily News, 16 February 2004
Rossini's L'italiana a la russe at the Met; Florez shines, Classics Today, 17 February 2004
L'Italiana in Algeri, Financial Times, 17 February 2004
A Rossini Circus, Newsday, 19 February 2004
You Don't Have to Be Italian to Play l'Italiana
Anthony Tommasini,The New York Times, 16 February 2004

There was little doubt that the tenor Juan Diego Flórez, the new prince of bel canto opera, would excel in the role of Lindoro when Rossini's buffo classic "L'Italiana in Algeri" returned to the Metropolitan Opera's repertory on Friday night. But the casting of the Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as Isabella, the Italian girl of the title, seemed a questionable call.

Ms. Borodina's earthy voice and smoldering stage presence have ideally suited her to powerhouse roles like Verdi's Princess Eboli and Saint-Saëns's Dalila. But did she have the right comic touch for Isabella, as well as the vocal agility to toss off Rossini's brilliant coloratura roulades?

Did she ever. Ms. Borodina has given some splendid performances at the Met since her 1997 debut in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," but this captivating Isabella may be her best work to date.

With Mr. Flórez in fine voice, a strong supporting cast, James Levine conducting a tender and lithe account of a score he clearly loves, and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's fresh-looking 1973 production, with its fanciful evocation of a creamy-colored, latticed Algerian palace, this "L'Italiana in Algeri" may be the sleeper hit of the Met season.

The key to Ms. Borodina's comic success is that she takes the story seriously. There is nothing wrong with any man anywhere, the opera's moral suggests, that can't be remedied by a nice, hardy Italian girl. Mustafa, the bey (or governor) of Algiers, has grown bored with his wife, Elvira, and wants a replacement, a new Italian wife. One day a candidate turns up among the captives Mustafa's soldiers routinely snatch from the sea: the sassy and desirable Isabella. Mustafa decides to pawn Elvira off on Lindoro, a young Italian who has been forced to become his personal slave, not knowing that back in Italy Lindoro and Elvira were lovers.

Ms. Borodina vibrantly conveyed Isabella's unflappable self-confidence. True, after her capture she spent a few requisite moments bemoaning her difficulty in the grandly lyrical cavatina "Cruda sorte!" But in the fleet, dazzling cabaletta that followed, she unleashed streams of defiant coloratura, singing with sumptuous sound and breezy control. You don't doubt she will find a wily way out of this fix, especially when Mustafa falls for her at sight. And who wouldn't? Mr. Flórez, a limber and boyish Lindoro, admirably light on his feet during some dancing bits, sang with more technical security than in his recent New York recital. With his light yet vibrant lyric tenor he shaped lovely legato phrases and relished the ringing top notes. And as always, the sheer exuberance of his singing was matched by his physical energy.

The stage director, David Kneuss, has worked out some deadpan antics for the cast. In the first act finale one of those typical Rossini ensembles in which everyone stops cold to express bewilderment at the confounding mess they're in, there were shades of Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor as the six main characters inched across the stage in a jumbled choreography of hand slaps to reeling heads and impotent air punches.

Given the current tensions in the world, it was hard not to wince at the comic premise of the opera: an uptight, totalitarian Muslim leader is loosened up by an easygoing, liberal-minded European woman. The only gag that may have crossed the line into ethnic stereotyping came when Mustafa, emerging from a steam bath, was shown to have an upper torso matted front and back with thick black tufts of hair. Still, how could anyone not be disarmed by the charismatic, vocally robust Mustafa of the veteran Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto? The soprano Lyubov Petrova as Elvira and the baritone Earle Patriarco as Taddeo, an older Italian pining for Isabella, were also standouts.

In the madcap final scene Lindoro admits the increasingly gullible Mustafa to a select order of Italians called the Pappataci (a ragtag bunch of Italian captives). They introduce Mustafa to the most sacred rite of the Pappataci: a dinner of pasta and Chianti. When Taddeo tries to warn Mustafa that Isabella and Lindoro are about to escape, the Algerian bey, digging into his spaghetti like a true Italian, tells the old man to relax, sit down and eat something.

Rollicking Rossini Gem Revived at Met
Mike Silverman, Associated Press, 15 February 2004

In a Rossini comic opera, there comes a moment when the characters stop in their tracks and join together to express varying degrees of bewilderment over the twists and turns of the plot.

When these ensembles are performed with clockwork precision, the contrast between the disarray of emotion and the rigorous logic of the music creates a sublime sense of controlled chaos that is unmatched anywhere else in the repertory.

The rollicking first-act finale of "L'italiana in Algeri" ("The Italian Girl in Algiers") is a particularly delicious example. And its performance by the expert cast at Friday night's revival by the Metropolitan Opera deservedly brought down the house.

The star of the occasion was Russian mezzo Olga Borodina, whose previous roles at the Met have been femmes fatales like Dalilah or Carmen, light years away from either Rossini or comedy. There was no doubt she would possess the star power and glamour for the role of Isabella, who is shipwrecked in Algeria and forced to fend off the advances of the local ruler, Mustafa, until she can reunite with her true love, Lindoro. But it came as more of a surprise how lively a comedian she proved and how well she managed the vocal gymnastics Rossini requires of his heroine. Borodina sounded the slightest bit tentative in her entrance aria, "Cruda sorte," but she soon warmed up, and by the time she rallied Mustafa's Italian servants to her side in the rondo "Pensa alla patria," she had made the role her own.

Vocal dexterity came as no surprise at all from her Lindoro, tenor Juan Diego Florez, who has become a sensation since making his debut here just two years ago in another Rossini favorite, "Il Barbiere di Siviglia." The young Peruvian has a flawless technique and a ringing top voice that carries easily above high C. His tight, slightly nasal production isn't everyone's idea of a beautiful sound, but it's a small price to pay for such virtuosity.

As Mustafa, the veteran Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto stole the show on more than one occasion. Though his Rossinian technique is far from perfect, his booming voice and generous buffoonery added a crucial ingredient to the evening's fun.

Notable contributions in lesser roles came from soprano Lyubov Petrova, as Mustafa's long-suffering wife, Elvira, and from baritones Earle Patriarco and Mariusz Kwiecien as, respectively, Isabella's shipwrecked companion, Taddeo, and Mustafa's henchman, Haly.

The 1973 production by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle is naturally looking a bit faded these days, but its single set allows the action to keep flowing and most of the jokes to come through loud and clear.

The presence of Met artistic director James Levine in the pit promised a revival that would be unusually well-rehearsed, and the results did not disappoint. He kept the merriment bubbling along and maintained the synchronization between performers and orchestra that is so vital in Rossini.

It's hard not to love 'L'Italiana'
Howard Kissel, New York Daily News, 16 February 2004

Opera seldom comes closer to musical comedy than the end of the first act of Giacchino Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri," a piece of fluff about an Italian girl who captivates and outwits a heartless Algerian sultan.

As the first act ends, each character describes the reeling of his or her brain  for one it is a bell ringing "ding-dong," for another a cannon bellowing "boom-boom," etc. Rossini turns this silliness into an ensemble number of delicacy, elegance and enchantment.

For it to succeed, the voices must each have a distinctive coloring, but they must also blend seamlessly, a challenging piece of casting that the Metropolitan Opera has met superbly in this revival of a 1973 production by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

The "ding-dongs" are provided by the crystal-clear soprano of Lyubov Petrova, playing a wife of whom the sultan has grown tired, and the mezzo of Sandra Piques Eddy, her slave.

The "boom-boom" comes from Ferrucio Furlanetto, whose sonorous bass conveys all the pomposity of the hateful sultan. The smooth baritone of Earle Patriarco, as the Italian girl's suitor, provides a crow-like "caw-caw."

Mariusz Kwiecien, as a pirate, does half the "bang -bang" of a hammer. The other half comes from the extraordinary Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez, whose rich, sweet, ringing voice is perfect for Rossini's pyrotechnics.

Completing the ensemble is the great Russian mezzo Olga Borodina, better known for dark roles that allow her huge, gorgeous voice full latitude. Here, however, she shows how perfectly she controls its size and many colors.

She handles the comedy splendidly, never nudging the audience to laugh, but drawing a solid response from the seriousness with which she behaves as the artful Italian. The irresistible proceedings are under the expert direction of conductor James Levine.

Rossini's L'italiana a la russe at the Met; Florez shines
Robert Levine, Classics Today, 17 February 2004

Metropolitan Opera House, N.Y.; February 16th, 2004

Did you know that today, even in this political climate, there's a show in New York which depicts a despotic Muslim leader as a fool, duped by a pretty Italian woman? It's at the Met, and it's Rossini's youthful, sometimes witty, more often slapstick, 1813 opera, "L'Italiana in Algeri" (The Italian Girl in Algiers). The production dates from 1973 and it was, and remains, an airy, delightful concoction of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's, and with David Kneuss's direction, the cast moved just as lightheartedly, half-dancing and prancing, and not taking too much too seriously.

The big news was the casting. Tenor Juan Diego Florez, singing the role of Lindoro for the first time at the Met, was charming, boyish and involved, singing with absolute security, unafraid of either high notes or rapid coloratura. His comfort  both vocal and physical  centered the performance: He was enjoying himself and it was catching. Ferruccio Furlanetto sang Mustafa, the Turkish Bey, with big tone and great comic abandon. He can't quite handle the quick divisions Rossini wrote for the character, but he still stuck to the rhythms and sang right on the notes. The casting surprise was Olga Borodina as Isabella, the eponymous "Italiana." The Russian mezzo is normally heard in heavier roles, but she proved here that her superb technique can carry her through Rossini's bel canto demands, and her plush tone was a glory from top to bottom. Marilyn Horne made the role her own in the '70s and, frankly, it's still hers  Borodina caught some of the role's comedy, but she's hardly a natural comedienne; she lacks the necessary looseness as well as some major irony. But this didn't cut into the performance's pleasures  it merely reminded this listener of how superbly all-encompassing Ms Horne was in the role. (Those who never saw her in the role can hear her on CD; it's worth looking for.) Baritone Earle Patriarco was fine as one of Isabella's suitors and the rest of the cast was worthy as well.

James Levine led a fleet, light-handed reading, and the Met Orchestra played with dash; the chorus was a bit ragged. Precisely why Levine included an aria for a relatively minor character which it is known that Rossini did not compose remains a mystery.

L'Italiana in Algeri
Martin Bernheimer, Financial Times, 17 February 2004
Thirty years have passed since Jean-Pierre Ponnelle created his genial production of L'Italiana in Algeri for the Met. And 15 years have passed since the designing director died. Much - probably too much - has happened to his precarious action-scheme in the interim.

Ponnelle's clever unit-set is still in place, though it looks a bit weatherbeaten. His original traffic patterns, currently overseen by David Kneuss, remain intact. Nevertheless, Rossini's almost-elegant comedy has been turned into a free-for-all farce, a triumph of vulgarity over wit. It's sad.

The broadly ballyhooed revival, which opened on Friday, was no doubt intended as a stellar showcase for Olga Borodina as the saucy heroine and Juan Diego Flórez as her beloved suitor. Much admired here in such dramatic challenges as Verdi's Amneris and Saint-Saëns's Dalila, the Russian mezzo-soprano traipsed through Isabella's vocal filigree with surprising aplomb.

Her timbre remained darkly monochromatic, however, and she seemed to confuse mugging with character projection. Cast more to type, the Peruvian tenor conquered every bel-canto hurdle with suavity, some nasal top tones notwithstanding, and exuded boyish charm in the process. Perhaps they should have called the opera Lindoro.

Desperately trying to dominate the proceedings as a hyper-bumbling Mustafà, Ferruccio Furlanetto turned out to be far more buffo than basso. Where, oh where, was Samuel Ramey when we needed him? It was silly-business as usual with Lyubov Petrova as a sweet yet occasionally strident Elvira and Earle Patriarco as a clownish yet meek-sounding Taddeo. Marius Kwiecien, the only holdover from the class of '01, swashbuckled agreeably as Haly.

Returning to this challenge after an 18-year respite, James Levine conducted sympathetically and con brio. He may not be a Rossinian by nature, or by inclination, but he does a very good imitation.

A Rossini Circus
Marion Lignana Rosenberg, Newsday, 19 February 2004

Antics detract from a melodic 'Algeri'

For a company that has largely - and maddeningly - bypassed the Rossini Renaissance of the past generation, the Metropolitan Opera occasionally does dead right by the composer known as the "Swan of Pesaro." One such occasion was the 1975 production of his "L'assedio di Corinto," which marked the Met debut of Beverly Sills. Another was the 1997 staging of his "La Cenerentola" for Cecilia Bartoli, and its revivals featuring the cream of today's staggering bounty of gifted Rossinian singers.

Despite its promise, and some wonderfully accomplished musical performances, this season's revival of "L'Italiana in Algeri" does not rank among these illustrious events. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1973 production, directed by David Kneuss, looks wan, larded with all manner of coarse and fussy attempts at humor: a turban kicked around like a soccer ball; shimmying bosoms and backsides, and manic choreography. It typifies the Met's condescending approach to Italian comic opera as seen in its productions of"Il Barbiere di Siviglia," too often played for guffaws rather than as a nimble, sophisticated art form.

From a musical perspective, Rossini's tale of an Italian girl washed up on the shores of Algiers who takes charge of an overbearing Moorish suitor and sparring Latin lovers, remains close to shipshape. Performed in Azio Corghi's critical edition, the score gleams like a Michelangelo fresco scrubbed clean of centuries of soot.

James Levine and the Met orchestra offered a zestful reading of the overture, whose chirping winds and iridescent orchestration danced and whirled weightlessly. Levine's Rossini has something of the dry fizz of Claudio Abbado's masterful interpretations. With tenor Juan Diego Flórez as Lindoro, Levine has a leading man who can negotiate Rossini's ornate lines as well as the virtuosos of the Met orchestra. High, fleet voices can enjoy cruelly short primes, but for now, at least, Flórez is beyond reproach. He looks every inch the impish, irresistible gallant, and caps cascades of runs with long, soft, exquisitely tapered notes. His comic patter is both understandable and sparkling with wit, and he makes flourishes tell of lovesickness, laughter or martial resolve. Maria Callas called the ornaments of bel canto "a vast language on its own," and no one today speaks that language more eloquently than Flórez.

Olga Borodina's Isabella is less consistently successful. She brings a faultless legato line to "Per lui che adoro," scaling down her lush mezzo to a breathtaking thread of sound in the aria's reprise, and she pops out bubbly, spot-on staccati in "O, che muso!"

At the moment, though, Borodina is no Rossinian. While her voice has the ideal weight and color for this wickedly long and difficult role, Levine sometimes slowed proceedings to a funereal pace Monday to accommodate her efforts to cope with the role's lavishly decorated lines. A deft comedian, Borodina needs to work on her lugubrious Italian, marred by Slavic- soundingvowels and garbled consonants.

As Mustaf ... , Ferruccio Furlanetto indulges in too much mugging and comes up short in his command of Rossini's fireworks. His blustery handling of fioritura is not up to snuff in an era when Michele Pertusi, Samuel Ramey and others can sing this intricately ornamented music with elegance and precision.

Mariusz Kwiecien's firm, beautifully produced baritone and stylish ways plead for meatier assignments than the captain Haly, and Earle Patriarco is sweetly sympathetic as Isabella's cuckolded admirer, Taddeo. Lyubov Petrova's luminous, penetrating voice brings sparkle to the part of Mustaf ... 's long-suffering wife, Elvira, and Sandra Piques Eddy is luxuriously rich- toned as her slave, Zulma.

Monday's house was nearly full, belying the conventional wisdom that bel canto is a tough sell in New York. City Opera's upcoming production of Rossini's rarely done "Ermione" is already generating buzz. With regime change looming at the Met, given general manager Joseph Volpe's recent announcement that he would retire in 2006, and artist rosters groaning with dazzling Rossinians, perhaps New Yorkers can look forward to "Guillaume Tell" (not heard at the Met since 1931) or "Le Comte Ory." The latter, with Flórez singing like a god, zipping around in a nun's habit and engaged in a ménage ... trois, has had European audiences in a lather of lust in recent seasons.

Meanwhile, this flawed but enjoyable "Italiana" offers tantalizing glimpses of the splendors that could be in the bel canto backwater that is New York.


This page was last updated on: February 19, 2004