Bostonians bored with past-peak foliage can opt for a steamy seraglio this weekend as operagoers did last night for Boston Conservatory’s production of Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers). The hooting and hollering crowd of under-thirties that dominated the full house made the case for the relevance of lively comic opera for their cohort. On this particular night, an archaic art form did not seem as much like an endangered species as did the geezer contingent which seemed quite hollowed-out and strangely absent.
The Boston Conservatory Theater is a utilitarian black box with clear but dead acoustics—certainly not the sort of jewel box that the geezers would have preferred. It did little to improve the sound of the scrappy but enthusiastic orchestra, which despite being entombed in a very deep pit, did make an adequately impactful sound. And even the subtleties of the continuo harpsichord part, idiomatically essayed by Deena Grier, came through, though without any added sheen. Beginning with the overture, sheen was also most wanting from the upper strings. The room did not help them one bit. Andrew Altenbach kept the band on the rails, and handled Rossini’s demands for crescendi and accelerandi quite well, and guided the excellent choruses of eunuchs, slaves, corsairs, harem slaves and sailors as well as various trio, quartets, quintets and septets of principals through both the frequent frothy patter and the occasional moments of drama and lyricism.
Instrumental solos were often worthy. I can single out the lively chirping piccolloist Allison Parramore, clarinetist Louis Coy’s fleet and musical interplay with the singers, oboist Andrew van der Paardt’s noble keening, and cellist Jeremiah Barcus’s lyrical outpouring. Although I can’t help mentioning that in the penultimate scene of Act Two, the emphatic “Sound the horns” directive called up cuckolds horns instead of summoning the aspirations of the newly nationalistic Italian principalities.
While obviously working to a collegiate budget, the scenic design by Peter Waldron produced quite rich and pleasing effects. The unit set fronted with Islamic tessellated tiling opened through a wide arch onto a cyclorama that was ever changing in color. To signify the 12 scene changes, embellishments such as palm trees, trellises and braziers floated down from the fly space as costumed stage hands trucked in various props. The stage direction of Jonathon Pape posited an 1870’s setting, though not without some amusing anachronisms such as dirty dancing, Three Stooges’ gestures and 1920s slapstick. Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumed the very large cast with vivid imagination. The lead soprano had five costume changes including a Victorian travel suit, a gorgeous green taffeta Empire gown, a Storyvillesque clenched and flounced negligee and a suitably ridiculous harem getup. The various choruses were vivid, colorful (except the Italian one in all-white) and well differentiated. Though why she chose to costume Taddeo as Harold Lloyd is anyone’s guess. He did not fit into the 1870’s setting at all other than when he was in his “Makiata” costume. Supertitles were credited to the producer, Jonathon Pape, but the witty and colloquial translator was not identified. Wigs and makeup by Ashley Joyce gave an appropriate period feel especially with the luminous lighting. I hope it’s not a spoiler to cite the literal mop that bewigged Mustafá’s transformation to Pappataci.
To simply leave the lighting design with nothing more than the sobriquet, “luminous,” would cheat lighting designer Jeff Adelberg of sufficient credit for his starring role in this production. The way he painted with light in service of the mood and music was astonishing. The golden hues often gave way to vivid colors and unusual effects. In one particular example, Act I, Scene 5: The Grand Hall of the Bey’s Palace, the oranges and red tones of the general illumination suddenly changed to dark and cool with a Maxfield Parish blue cyc; follow-spots illuminated the individual singers in turn as the action froze. In another gorgeous moment, footlights projected giant shadows of surprise pink again a magenta background. Floods with cookies gave a fine 19th century stagecraft simulation of a garden at night.
And what of the singers? In student productions one has to expect various levels of vocal polish. No conservatory can cast a student show with an even regional opera consistency. In the case of BOCO’s cast, everyone characterized well and mastered Rossini’s demands for lightness and agility. That includes the hard-working choruses whose contributions were invariably satisfying and apt.
The principals all had moments of which to be proud: As Elvira Christina Donal Meeks conveyed the suitable shrillness of a nagging wife (later to be improved into Cinderella’s evil stepsister) and dominated some of the ensembles with a bright and penetrating soprano, Tyler Wolowicz gave Taddeo a witty comic foil’s bark and could bite as well in his few serious moments, alumni guest artist Zac Engle invested the tenorian tessitura with tones that at in his best moments were on the money even though the direction did him no favors with a fey watering can and mincing blocking, Ryne Cherry’s Mustafá rollicked with swagger, generosity of projection and engaged characterization.
But the evening belonged to the Isabella, Abigail Dock. Her creamy tones, agile and luscious ornamentation stole the show as it should. She embodied a domanatrix with heart in one great scene after another. Her dressing room appearance in negligee was emblematic; amusing gestures with a powder puff fluttered along with her exquisite vocal roulades. The crowd rewarded her success.
Lively and fun though this show was, it argued for some consolidation among the opera departments at the several institutions in town that teach this art—at least for the production of major shows. Emerson College has the opera theaters, New England Conservatory has the orchestras, but no single institution has a roster of singers sufficient to cast at a consistently compelling level.