Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bel Canto 2: Italiana in Nancy; David Hermann brings breath of fresh air to France

L'italiana in Algeri /L'Italienne à Alger at Opéra National de Lorraine in Nancy, February 19 2012

Director ..... David Hermann
Conductor ..... Paolo Olmi

Isabella ..... Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Lindoro ..... Yijie Shi
Mustafà ..... Donato di Stefano
Taddeo ..... Nigel Smith
Elvira ..... Yuree Jang
Zulma ..... Olga Privalova
Haly ..... Igor Gnidii

Orchestre symphonique et lyrique de Nancy

You must have already noticed that bel canto is not exactly my cup of tea. I do occasionally find it irresistible -- when it's well sung and the shows are intelligently mounted. Rossini's opera buffa can be wonderful if/when staged with wit, and without lots of cheap buffoonery. If in addition the vocal pyrotechnics is turned on, Rossini can be a real treat.

L'italiana in Algeri is one of the most famous in this genre and if you like Rossini & are minimally open minded this particular production must be "one of those shows" for you. After several setbacks and a whole series of catastrophic new productions presented at the Paris Opera, I really needed something to reassure me that I am not really lost for opera and that I can still feel those thrilling moments and exultation after a good opera show.

You maybe already know it but I learned only last week that Rossini composed L'Italiana in less than a month at the age of 21, and only a year before completing another opera with the reference to Orient and/or Turkey -- Il Turco in Italia. This trivia makes different effect on different folks: while for the bel-canto fans this only supports the idea of Rossini as a true musical genius, for the detractors this is a corroborating evidence of the simplicity of the score.
Whatever the side of the issue you're on, the Rossini's opera buffa can be irresistible and hardly beatable entertainment when staged with a good sense for comedy.

David Hermann is definitely one of the very best young opera directors around. He seems to have a refined sense for theatrical narration in opera [similar to McVicar on a good day], but capable of going beyond narrative, brings new ideas that unveil new meanings of any given piece. His productions are a well tamed and intelligently structured regie that should please most of the people. 

In this production David celebrates Isabella. She is the center of the story, her courage and determination, readiness to do everything for love. Instead of Turks and Algiers, Hermann placed his production in a jungle where an aircraft had crashed about three months before Isabella arrives looking for her beloved Lindoro. The local tribe --lead by Mustafa-- captured the remains of the plane and transformed it for their proper use -- in a way you would expect a jungle tribe would use a fancy object that fell from the sky [with all kinds of funny surprises]. They captured the crew members and transformed them into "eunuchs", imprisoned Lindoro in one of the crashed plane's trunks.

With more than impressive sets [Rifail Ajdarpasic], fantastic costumes [Bettina Walter], this refreshing take on this opera is a perfectly plausible reading of the plot that works wonderfully with the crowd thanks to the impeccable direction and to a formidably homogenous cast.
This is a kind of shows that is hard to stage because it takes time to rehearse: every scene is filled with gags that, in order to work, require accurate timings and total involvement of all the cast members.

The parallel to an already spun plot is the encounter of the two worlds: the Western civilization stuck in a jungle, and the tribe people who are suspicious but fascinated by all kinds of Western things [starting from Zulma who admires the clothes she found in Isabella's suitcase, to Mustafa who loves whisky and gets easily hooked up on the hedonistic formula ('pappataci') that is often a caricature of the Italian 'dolce vita' style of life...] Encounter with what is perceived a different world makes us learn more about ourselves...

On the funny side Taddeo is probably the character who carries most of the show on his shoulders. I hate the generalized statements --one of which is that 'all British actors are good'-- but if a Brit is blessed with the acting talent, then he is really great. This is the case with Nigel Smith, whose Taddeo is funny, desperate, capricious, light-hearted... in short terrific and wonderfully singing too. I wonder why --oh why!?-- we don't get to see more of him on the bigger world's opera stages. Nigel was definitely my great discovery last Sunday!

Opéra National de Lorraine in Nancy clearly invested a lot in this production. Besides the impressive sets, fantastic costumes, David Hermann staging the show, for the role of Isabella they engaged a high profile singer too: Marie-Nicole Lemieux sang her first Isabella in Nancy. She looks endearing, a light-hearted woman, ready for a good laugh at any time, and so seeing her doing everything to incarnate a courageous, funny, and "cunning" Isabella was a great pleasure. This is the role when your standard mezzo-sopranos suffer a lot with those long bars filled with gravi. Not Marie-Nicole! She cannot trill like Bartoli, but she sings homogeneously loud in all the vocal registers and sounds fantastic in a relatively small but very pretty auditorium of the Nancy Opera.

No, the list of good surprises does not and there. An extra good surprise comes with Yijie Shi: a terrific young Chinese tenor who sings with a punch all the Lindoro arias. In a perfect Italian and with  disconcerting easiness Shi might be the first big Chinese tenor. Would be great to check if he can sound as good in a larger auditorium but last Sunday afternoon he was mighty impressive.

Donato Di Stefano was the only native Italian in the cast and was excellent in the role of Mustafa. Yuree Jang is a very good Korean soprano and I'm looking forward to see her in some longer role. She dominated the group singing throughout the show. Igor Gnidii was brilliant too, not only thanks to his talent but also because David Hermann gave Haly an important and funny dimension. production.
The director of the Nancy Orchestra Paolo Olmi conducted the show with great care, passion and verve.

Good new production is France has become an oxymoron -- after the catastrophic Faust, Manon, dreadful Forza del Destino at the Paris Opera, apathetic Amadis de Gaule and poor Egisto at Opéra Comique, and a flat Don Pasquale at TCE, it is good to see a well staged and inventive show in France. I know, "Good things happen in Lyon!", but the level of  mediocrity of the directors who produce opera these days in Paris must be the worst in the history of this city recorded so far [Del Monaco is yet to present his trash in April.]

If you can catch this Italiana in Metz, it is not to be missed. If not, it will be back on the program next year... but in Bratislava.

Notice also that David Hermann is preparing his next Rossini show, this time it will be in Amsterdam -- Il Turco in Italia (with our beloved Olga Peretyatko).

Production photos:

My photos:

and a short video clip from the French TV France3:


  1. The Opera de Metz site won't let me click on a date to reserve. Complet? With Lemieux, plus the clip on France3 I wouldn't be surprised :-(

  2. Hi Chanterelle,

    Try to call. They often don't put all the tickets on sale via the Internet. Don't even try to understand! ;)