With all the laudable efforts to detach from opera the label of an elitist art form, there is an undeniable pleasure in attending an opera performance in a luxurious setting. The Blackwater Valley Opera Festival leverages exactly the seductive power of this combination. Given such plush context, the risk is that of experiencing an anti-climax. Did it happen with L’italiana in Algeri? Partially. While the average quality of the production was good, there were a few less successful elements that visibly detracted from its full enjoyment.

Rachel Kelly (Isabella) and Leonardo Galeazzi (Mustafa) © Frances Marshall
Rachel Kelly (Isabella) and Leonardo Galeazzi (Mustafa)
© Frances Marshall

The start saw the inexplicable beheading of the overture. Now, even if probably more than one – even serious – opera lover is secretly guilty of paying more attention to the singing than to the orchestral score, here we are talking about an entire overture missing, and a very popular, exceptionally eloquent and entertaining one. Instead, the performance started with the first chorus.    

Rachel Kelly (Isabella) © Frances Marshall
Rachel Kelly (Isabella)
© Frances Marshall

Other similarly baffling choices particularly crowded the first act. A cut was made to the first tenor aria, with about the first minute and a half containing the horn solo missing. The direction by Pierre-Emmanuel Rousseau was generally effective and functional to the comic spirit of the opera, but at the expense of the more serious side of it. Again at the very beginning and later in the opera, the portrayal of Elvira (the full-voiced young soprano Rachel Croash) and her confidant Zulma (festival veteran Sandra Oman) didn’t seem to be faithful to the text. Both the libretto and the very delicate vocal score suggest a more serious rather than a cheaply comical character: the wife that sadly laments that her husband doesn’t love her anymore. L’italiana in Algeri is after all well known for its seamless mix of opera buffa and and opera seria styles, and flattening out this dualism is reductive.         

The modernisation of the story doesn’t really work either as in the transposition the plot loses logical consistency. The Italian slave Lindoro becomes here a backpacker stranded in a luxury hotel in Algiers, while the sultan Mustafa becomes the gangster hotel owner. But then what about Isabella – here an Italian model – why wouldn’t she just be able to leave with Lindoro once she gets there? And especially, what about the final part about Isabella freeing all the other Italian “slaves” after launching on her patriotic aria? All this loses meaning in this version.

Rachel Kelly (Isabella) © Frances Marshall
Rachel Kelly (Isabella)
© Frances Marshall

Conductor Marco Zambelli and the Blackwater Valley Opera Festival Chamber Orchestra did a very good job with Rossini’s pyrotechnic score; nonetheless, it was difficult not to feel the need for a higher number of players than the twelve composing the orchestra. The opera was cut of some arias and many recitatives. The choice of having the remaining recitatives in English was an acceptable compromise, although electronic surtitles were missed for the arias.

The singing was the best part of the production. If we forget the fact that both Mustafa, played by the excellent Leonardo Galeazzi, and Taddeo, sang by Rory Musgrave, are parts written for basses and not for baritones (like Haly, sung by bass Rory Dunne), the two baritones still worked really well, especially in the “Kaimakan” duo and in the amusing “Pappataci” scene (together with Abreu).

Rory Dunne (Haly), Leonardo Galeazzi (Mustafa) and Rory Musgrave (Taddeo) © Frances Marshall
Rory Dunne (Haly), Leonardo Galeazzi (Mustafa) and Rory Musgrave (Taddeo)
© Frances Marshall

Tenor Javier Abreu (Lindoro) had a lovely warm quality to his voice. Lindoro’s simple character is not a match for the shrewd and emancipated Isabella, but he gets to sing the most beautiful aria in the opera (“Languir per una bella”). The virtuosity of the aria, full of close-together high pitches and quite early in the opera, is unforgiving and Abreu showed some uncertainty, as well as seemingly singing in a lower register than the original score. But in the second act he gained confidence and delivered some very good moments, like the already mentioned scene of the “Pappataci”.

Mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly in the role of Isabella was absolutely perfect. She has it all: good looks, intelligent acting, a solid vocal technique and a memorable voice. To be noted is that Isabella is a role written for contralto. Kelly’s voice has an impressively broad range and she not only moves effortlessly from the high pitches to the lowest notes, but she – rather unusually – seemed to deliver her best in both of those extremes: her top notes did not lose, but amplify her voice’s velvety quality, while you were left to admire the depth of her lower notes, especially surprising at her young age and within such a slender frame.

It was a lovely evening with the feeling of a special treat. But the recently renamed Blackwater Valley Opera Festival (formerly Lismore Festival) need to pay a bit more attention to details in the productions if they aspire to firmly establish their name in the opera lover’s pilgrimage map.