Monday, March 23, 2009

The Italian Girl in Algiers

Last Saturday I watched the Dallas Opera’s last performance at Fair Park Music Hall. Fifty-two years ago the Dallas Civic Opera (now the Dallas Opera) gave its first performance ever: The Italian Girl in Algiers. This week it ended its run at Fair Park with the same Rossini opera.

Like most opera’s the plot is simple and silly. Isabella (the Italian Girl of the title) crash lands (a plane in the Dallas Opera’s performance; a shipwreck in the original) in Algiers while looking for her lost love. At the same time, the Bey of Algiers, Mustafa, has decided to divorce his wife (he’s bored) and marry an Italian Girl instead. Isabella is seized by his Mustafa’s captain and seems destined to become Mustafa’s new wife. As usual, after many misadventures, Isabella and her lover are reunited and escape and Mustafa decides that he will be happier with his current wife than a new Italian one.

The opera was played for broad comedy, full of slapstick, mugging and pranks going on in the background. The audience laughed repeatedly, which was a good thing because with the exception of the lead, Isabella, most of the singing was only adequate.

More than fifty years ago when The Italian Girl in Algiers was first staged in Dallas, I imagine the performance must have been very different. The director was Franco Zeffirelli, best known for his highly sensual film version of Romeo and Juliet—it caused a sensation when it was released in 1968. The picture here gives you some idea of the production, but if you haven’t seen it then you probably should. I haven’t seen a full review of the 1957 production Zeffirelli production of The Italian Girl in Algiers, but blurbs I’ve seen describe it as “lavish” and “lush”. If it was typical of Zeffirelli’s other work, it was probably highly dramatic and intensely romantic.

I don’t imagine you could do the same production today. The central themes of the opera deal with gender roles and conflict between Christian and Muslim beliefs. If done seriously, then many would find it seriously offensive. The opera isn’t very subtle.

So although the Dallas Opera opened and closed its existence at Fair Park with the same opera, in reality it wasn’t the same opera at all. The music and libretto were the same, but the performances were completely different. Each, perhaps, appropriate to its time.

A final postscript: After the opera and curtain calls were complete, the director asked the audience to join hands and sing Auld Lang Synge as a farewell. It was a highly effective and appropriate way to say good bye.

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