By Gioachino Rossini
Presented by West Bay Opera
At the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA; 650-424-9999 Conducted by David Sloss
Directed by Yefim Maizel

Reviewed by Judy Richter

As if Gioachino Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers weren't amusing enough in its own right, West Bay Opera adds to the fun with a production imaginatively staged by Yefim Maizel. A witty, if sometimes rather vernacular English translation by Donald Pippin, founder and director of San Francisco's Pocket Opera, also heightens the enjoyment.

Maizel, an assistant stage director at the San Francisco Opera, sets the story in the 1920s and interprets it as a "tongue-in-cheek adventure story," according to his program notes. Hence, the fun begins with the overture, well-played by the orchestra under the baton of music director and WBO general director David Sloss. A young man sits at an old manual typewriter on the left side of the stage and types a title that is projected onto the exotic-looking stage curtain -- "Harem Nights." After a couple of false starts based on misquoted famous first lines, such as "It was a dark and stormy day," he comes up with the words that set the mood as harem women step out and engulf him in their collective embrace.

Robyn Spencer-Crompton costumes the Algerians in traditional garb, but the Italians are in '20s clothing when their colorful, waylaid balloon lands. Credit Peter Crompton's set design for visual ingenuity on the small Lucie Stern Theatre stage. The Italians are led by Isabella, dressed as an aviatrix complete with boots, jodhpurs and hat. Under her utilitarian jacket, though, she wears silky camisoles -- emblematic of how she will use her womanly wiles and beauty to outwit the ruling Bey of Algeria and free his slave, her beloved Lindoro. Such delightful direction and design continue throughout the production, abetted by John G. Rathman's lighting design.

Another plus of this production is mezzo-soprano Ann Marie Wilcox as Isabella. Like most of her colleagues, she is making her WBO debut. (As is customary for WBO, this production is double-cast. Wilcox alternates with Shawn Marie Williams.) Wilcox has the slender good looks and polished comic acting skills more commonly associated with musical comedy performers than opera singers. Her vivacity and assured stage presence help carry the production. In general, her voice, technique and range successfully meet the challenges of Rossini's florid style except for an occasional imprecise run and an edge on high notes.

Her Lindoro is the engaging Gary Ruschman (alternating with Brian Staufenbiel), who moves and acts well -- pluses for any tenor. He has excellent technique with good command of ornamentation. He also has a pleasing, exceptionally light voice that seems to originate mainly from the head rather than the chest. He and Wilcox sing well together in their duets and other ensembles.

Bass Clifton Romig had a rough start in his portrayal of Mustafà, Bey of Algiers, on Oct. 17, when his vibrato was so wide that it distorted his pitch and runs. To be fair, though, it should be noted that he has no alternate; hence, unlike the other principals, he had sung the night before. He did improve during the evening though his vibrato still was pronounced. He did a fairly good job of capturing the character's pomposity, foolishness and thoughtlessness.

Although baritone Ryan Taylor (alternating with Matthew Cavicke) seems rather young as Taddeo, Isabella's admirer, he sings well and has a winning stage presence as a foolish but endearing character. Supporting roles are satisfactorily filled by soprano Estelle Kruger (alternating with Amy McKenzie) as Elvira, the Bey's loving but spurned wife; mezzo-soprano Stacy Cohen (alternating with Barbara Sloss) as Zulma, Elvira's confidante; and baritone James Brown (no alternate) as Haly, the Bey's lieutenant. The chorus is vocally adequate, but the acting and energy level need improving, especially among the men.

Overall, though, the WBO team of directors, designers and musicians has created a most enjoyable performance, one that speaks well of this community-based company.

For more information, see the West Bay Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:48 PST