Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers, is tired of his devoted wife, Elvira. He's heard about Italian women, and he wants one for himself. It looks as if his wish will be fulfilled when pirates enslave a group of shipwrecked Italians, including Isabella and her admirer Taddeo. But Isabella possesses both independence of mind and a sprightly inventiveness. Pretty soon she figures out how to make a fool of the Bey, retrieve her true lover, Lindoro, from his clutches, rid of herself of Taddeo's attentions and get all the Italians home. You can imagine how Rossini's audience must have enjoyed this tribute to the cleverness and irresistibility of their Italian women.
The entire cast of the Central City Opera production is excellent, but three performances truly stand out: Hungarian mezzo-soprano Viktoria Vizin, making her United States debut as Isabella; Lorraine Ernest as Elvira; and Richard Bernstein as a bald-headed, Yul Brynner-ish Mustafa. Bernstein has the kind of huge, gorgeous voice that carries everything before it, and he's a dominating presence on stage. He's also an unabashed and uninhibited comic. Mustafa bullies and preens, gazes at Isabella with buffoonish lust, gulps forkfuls of spaghetti at her behest and plunges wholeheartedly into any insane action that might win her favor. Ernest has a rich, soaring soprano that engages beautifully with Bernstein's bass-baritone -- even when all he's doing is yelling at her to leave him alone. As for Vizin, she shatters any lingering images anyone might still harbor about waddling, pouter-pigeon-chested opera stars. She's slim as a pencil stroke and, like Bernstein, a hell of a performer. In our culture, funny women have tended to be plain, often deprecating their own looks in their routines. But Vizin stems from the line of beautiful female cut-ups that started (at least for me) with England's Kay Kendall. Vizin shares Kendall's long, elegant lines, tart humor and class -- along with a clownish willingness to go all out. Dressed like a 1920s flapper, she moves through the set like a dancer. The voice? There's a darkness and astringency to it -- something sophisticated and bitter-sweet -- though Vizin can fly to the high notes on the instant, and she effortlessly delivers Rossini's most technically demanding passages. But this is a cool, sharp-tongued Isabella rather than a seductive one -- the kind of a clever, intimidating modern woman who could never end up in a harem and who can defeat a befuddled, over-indulged Mustafa without breaking a sweat.
Brian Downen brings a light, flowing tenor to the role of Isabella's beloved, Lindoro (although I do wish the costumer would reconsider those gray, harem trousers). Jonathan Hays, making his debut as a Central City principal, is Taddeo. He has a fine, mellow baritone and is a pretty funny performer, though perhaps a little young for the role: Taddeo survives impalement by pretending to be Isabella's uncle, but he looks like her brother. The opera boasts an impressive male chorus and a tight, bright orchestra, led by conductor Hal France.
Director David Gately employs lots of funny touches, and Michael Anania's sets provide visual humor. The rejected Elvira comforts herself at the beginning of the show by sucking blissfully on a huge hookah. Michael Rice, as Mustafa's captain, cleanses himself in a bubbly, cartoony, pink bath shaped like a hippopotamus. At one point, Lindoro sends a message to Isadora in a bottle, which bobs obediently off into the wings, then reverses and returns to him.
At the risk of being accused of humorlessness, I have to say that I had a moment's compunction watching the gleeful gulling of Mustafa. In the nineteenth century -- for obvious reasons -- Europe liked to see Asian and African leaders as preening, foolish, hopelessly naive and in need of a civilizing hand. You can't blame Rossini or librettist Angelo Anelli for using the stereotypes prevalent in their time any more than you can fault Shakespeare for his characterization of Shylock -- or the humbling of Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. People can't see beyond the cultural parameters set by their own place and time. But these days, anyone who stages Merchant of Venice or Shrew has to somehow deal with the fact (whether through interpretation, judicious cuts or a program note) that our ideas about Judaism or women's rights have changed. I don't think these uncomfortable ideas would have visited me if it weren't for the poisonous anti-Arabism that exists in some segments of our body politic at this moment.
Otherwise, however, L'Italiana provides a magical few hours of comedy, wit, charm and glorious music.