Mary Bevan (Elvira), Ezgi Kutlu (Isabella) and Quirijn de Lang (Mustafà) in Garsington Opera's L'Italiana in Algeri. (C) Johan Persson

Sunk with all hands

Robert Thicknesse

It was Michael Foot who suggested that Rossini’s 1813 comedy, the happy product of his youthful salad days, has more to say about Italian aspirations for national unity (and says it in a notably more fun way) than all of Verdi’s furrowed-browed interventions. I only mention it to raise the possibility (for those for whom such a notion might be news) that Rossini isn’t wholly vapid. It’s the sort of thing you need to remind yourself after a performance like Garsington’s childish, empty and dull-witted production, directed by Will Tuckett.

Garsington has a handy knack for Rossini, and under conductor David Parry the orchestra has learned how to play this stuff with as much finesse and style as any band in the country. This performance, despite a few off-nights in the wind section, was a pretty lovely example of how to perform this passingly elegant, refined, sophisticated, beautiful and highly entertaining score, full of delicacy and detail, wit and sprung rhythms.

Tuckett’s staging was the utter and exact opposite. Rossini’s vehicle is a pretty broad comedy about how Isabella, the Italian girl captive at the Algiers HQ of fatuous, predatory bey Mustafà, turns the tables on him, inspires a bunch of slaves to escape with feelings of patriotism and self-worth, rescues her beloved and reunites Mustafà with his wife; inside this, the composer suggests a number of light-handed observations about some not entirely irrelevant things.

But that all went by the board in a production that looked like an early stage rehearsal whose director had few more ideas than getting the singers to jig about in time with the music. Energy drained away as the game cast was confronted with the sight (in full daylight) of an audience staring in grim-faced torpor as one pointless scene succeeded another. Tuckett, a choreographer in his day job, gave no impression of understanding physical character or dramatic interaction (or dance): groups of characters marched up and down the staircase set or stood in lines, jiving vaguely to the music and singing out at the stony audience. Since there is no connection between episodes the story is barely told, and development of plot and character, such as exists, is presented in blocky vignettes. Insanely bored and sick of the stage, I took to watching Parry’s expressive and dramatic conducting: a much more satisfactory process. The cumulative energy of the action leads to ensembles and finales of madness and hysteria that should bear the audience along with no time to think. Once that flags and dies, as here, the show is sunk, and the public looks on with pity and contempt.

On paper this looked a good cast, and some did pretty well. Mary Bevan and Katie Bray, as Mustafà’s neglected wife Elvira and her sidekick Zulma, sang and moved with energy and gumption. The tenor Luciano Botelho, an enormously promising singer, needed a good deal more physical help than he got, and was under anxiety-inducing vocal pressure too as the lover Lindoro; he also had zero chemistry with Ezgi Kutlu’s bustly and rather mumsy Isabella, the heroine.

This is one of the great mezzo roles, and a fabulous character: Isabella single-handedly conjures actual and metaphorical liberation as passionate lover, freedom-fighter, inspirational leader – all articulated in a sophisticated musical journey that blends pathos, steely soul and coloratura of magical fantasy. But Kutlu’s performance was intensely peculiar, with really awkward gear changes and shifts of register, and a plodding and anxious way with the coloratura that is the antithesis of its song of freedom.

Quirijn de Lang had vitality and presence as Mustafà, though it was depressing that Parry allowed him to sing vulgarly to express the character’s brutishness; this is hardly ever appropriate in opera – there are other ways of denoting viciousness – and certainly never in bel canto; a disastrous decision.

Despite the manifold horrors, some sense of Rossini survived through music and playing. Isabella’s love song ‘Per lui che adoro’ started beautifully, with a soft, pulsing passion, and her rousing ‘Pensa alla patria’ produced a proper sense of breast-swelling human dignity and worth – it could also have made an great vehicle for a bit of jokey Brexit propaganda, which would probably have gone down pretty well. There was a lot of potential here, musically and vocally, and to see it so wantonly squandered was painful and depressing.