Everyone understands the appeal of pirates — sexy, naughty, dangerous. But what's the appeal of shipwreck?
If you ask The Italian Girl in Algiers, she might say, "Transformation."
Houston Grand Opera transforms tragedy into comedy in its second offering of the season which opens Friday night. The Italian Girl in Algiers is the third in a trio of Gioachino Rossini bel canto operas produced by Els Comediants, the sly surrealists behind HGO's 2007 Cenerentola and last season's Barber of Seville comprised of director Joan Font, set and costume designer Joan Guillén, and lighting designer Albert Faura.
And after a lackluster La bohème, Houston opera lovers could use some levity.
So why turn to shipwreck? Certainly there's plenty of it stored in cultural memory, from the Odyssey to The Tempest to Robinson Crusoe to Cast Away. What could be more dramatic than the terror of feeling everything solid beneath your feet disappearing into endless ocean?
Shakespeare expertly wrecked ships and lives, sundering lovers and families only to redeem and reunite later on. Here's how Trevor Nunn imagined the wreck that sets Twelfth Night in motion:
So how else might one find comedy in crashing waves?
If you ask Rossini, he might say, "delay and disaster make love sweeter." The pleasure and danger we associate with pirates and shipwrecks fuels the erotic complications of the plot, resulting in irresistible absurdity.
The Italian Girl in Algiers is a study in improbability. What opera isn't, you might ask.
Try this on for size. Mustafà, the Bey, or ruler, of Algiers grows tired of his wife Elvira. As he plots to with Haly, the captain of his guard, to marry Elvira to his Italian slave Lindoro, Lindoro's beloved Isabella is conveniently shipwrecked right where Haly can capture her. The timing is perfect. Mustafà has been looking to liven up his sex life.
It seems Italian girls are the Viagra of Algiers as far as Rossini is concerned.
Complications multiply to the point of confusion. But confusion can be charming as in the virtuosic ending of the first act, as the plot conflicts literally ring in the singers heads. Here's a taste of bel canto at its best: dexterous, effervescent, dizzyingly precise. How to resist these lyrics:
In my head I have a bell, loudly ringing ding, ding, ding!
My head's a sounding bell, loudly ringing ding, ding, ding!
or this delivery:
In the second act, the orientalist extravaganza begins in earnest, with Isabella in Turkish drag quaffing coffee with Mustafà while trying to plot her way back to Italy with her beau in tow. This is part of the fantasy of transformation in The Italian Girl in Algiers as Isabella tries on another identity. No matter how much you want to get back to Italy, a little cultural tourism helps pass the time.
By Rossini's day, it seems, the terror evoked by Turks and Saracens on the stages of European drama gave way to the allure of the harem. Rossini visited this territory in reverse in Il Turco in Italia, in which a Turkish Prince Selim lands in Italy to find a wife and ends up marrying his beloved Zaida, who fled for her life from his harem after rivals accused her of infidelity.
But what is it precisely that Italian girls have over all others? Ask Sam Ramey, who stunned Houstonians as the Grand Inquisitor last season in Don Carlos and who here sings the famous "Le Femmine D'Italia":
Ramey won’t return for this season's The Italian Girl in Algiers, but audiences might recognize respected bel canto tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville or Don Ramiro in Cinderella. Brownlee isn't the only familiar face. Patrick Carfizzi will play the demanding bass bey Mustafà and is well known to the HGO and totally stole the show as Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville. Daniela Barcelona makes her HGO debut as Isabella while Lauren Snouffer plays Elvira to Carfizzi's Mustafà.
Transformation is the key to shipwreck: What shatters can also reshape. But the power of shipwreck is also to take us beyond ourselves. The HGO's startling 2010 Peter Grimes witnessed the sea in all its brutality.
In Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers, the sea transports and cascades in coloratura passages, offering pleasure without danger.
In other words, pirates without knives.