- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Washington National Opera’s production of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” is bawdy, farcical and over the top. And Saturday’s opening night audience at the Kennedy Center Opera House ate it up.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1973 production, here directed by David Kneuss, plays Rossini as burlesque. Sexual innuendo runs rampant, culminating in a somewhat shocking scene in which an apparently naked girl runs out of a sultan’s bathtub.

Garnering the most laughs was Ildar Abdrazakov, who played the Algerian bey Mustafa. Mustafa is sick of his wife and decides to marry her off to Lindoro, an Italian captured when he was shipwrecked off Algiers a few months earlier. The sultan’s wife, Elvira, has her charms, but Lindoro’s heart already belongs to another.

Imagine Lindoro’s surprise when his Italian beloved is captured by Mustafa after her ship goes down.

Isabella had been searching for the missing Lindoro, but shows up just as Mustafa decides that only a feisty Italian woman will relieve his boredom with his harem. Hijinks ensue as the confident Isabella sets out to break the bey known far and wide as a master tamer of women.

Mr. Abdrazakov, one of three Russians in the cast, has a fine bass, but it was his dramatics that won the audience’s heart. No one seemed to mind how ludicrous he appeared. In fact, they couldn’t stop laughing at the lumbering lothario who seemed to borrow more from Saturday Night Live’s “wild and crazy guys” than any operatic tradition.

His wife, mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, played the Italian girl of the title. Her acting was tamer, but no less memorable. Isabella is one of the juiciest roles in opera buffa.

“The Italian girl speaks her mind,” Elvira notes with admiration. “She’s smarter than all the others.”

To Mustafa — and many of the men in Rossini’s time — women were meant to be ruled by men. Isabella declares she can make any man her slave. And instead of lampooning such a grand statement, Rossini has her triumph, even over a grand sultan.

Miss Borodina, who can carry off dramatic roles such as Dalila (whom she played last season in her WNO debut) as well as Rossini bel canto, could hardly have been better cast. She has incredible stage presence, stealing every scene in which she appeared. Mr. Ponnelle’s costumes gave her an added dignity.

But even her widely admired voice couldn’t compete with that of Juan Diego Florez, who played Lindoro. The 33-year-old Peruvian tenor made his WNO debut Saturday night, and let’s hope it’s the start of a long relationship. Mr. Florez has it all — an impressively agile, gorgeous voice, acting chops and an ease with the stage. Mr. Abdrazakov may have had the audience in stitches, but it is Mr. Florez’s voice that they’ll remember.

**1/2

WHO: Washington National Opera

WHAT: Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

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