`Italian Girl' sung with enthusiasm

Opera Vivente opens season on uneven note


October 27, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If the Marx Brothers had written an opera, instead of just famously wrecking one, it might well have turned out something like Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri.

With a pompous pasha, wronged and wily women, a lovesick gent or two, and even a bunch of eunuchs whirling through the plot, there's no chance of taking anything seriously. Thanks to the effervescent and brilliantly constructed score, however, there's no way to mistake this for an insubstantial work, either.

Opera Vivente opened its season last weekend with a diverting, if uneven, production of the piece, performed in a deft English translation by Robert David Macdonald as An Italian Girl in Algiers.

This chamber-sized company, which performs in an intimate hall of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood, has often put together some remarkably cohesive casts from the regional talent pool, but the choices this time didn't quite add up to a satisfying unit.

The exception on Friday night was in the title role of Isabella, whose search for a long-lost love lands her in the clutches of an Algerian ruler tired of his own wife. Ann Marie Wilcox inhabited the part persuasively, revealing Isabella's take-charge streak as easily as her beguiling side. The mezzo-soprano's singing was secure and vibrant. She revealed a particular flair for inserting colorful nuances, some of them decidedly - and amusingly - non-operatic in style or technique.

As Lindoro, the object of Isabella's affections, tenor John Zuckerman offered some charming touches in phrasing and acting (he didn't know what to do with his hands, though). But he never seemed comfortably settled into the tricky music; he occasionally landed on top notes with a sturdy ping, more often with strain.

Jimi James was a burly-voiced Mustafa, the pasha with a penchant for Italians. Subtlety was not part of his vocal or theatrical approach, but the high energy had its rewards. Will Heim nicely captured the timorous nature of Isabella's pesky admirer, Taddeo. His singing was a little under-powered, but brimming with telling inflections.

Vikki Jones (Elvira), Andrea Arena (Zulma) and Brian Ming Chu (Haly) made more or less effective contributions. There weren't enough bodies to constitute a real chorus of eunuchs, and the singers on hand had trouble with articulation and projection (not to mention acting).

JoAnn Kulesza conducted the spotty, but scrappy, little orchestra in propulsive style, and, baton clutched between her teeth, smoothly switched to the harpsichord to play recitatives.

Thom Bumblauskas designed the set, Peter Jakubowski the lighting. Stage director John Bowen followed a mostly straightforward path that uncorked only part of the opera's humor. And he let the eunuchs hang around awkwardly onstage too many times, fiddling with their vests, waiting for their next cue - not a good look for such a manic opera.

Opera Vivente

What: An Italian Girl in Algiers

Where: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St.

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday

Tickets: $20 to $36

Call: 410-547-7997

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