Indiana University Opera opened its 2014-15 season last weekend with an excellent rendition of The Italian Girl in Algiers, a delightful and charming, if lesser-known, Rossini opera. Going in to the Sept. 20 performance, I thought it risky, or at least "interesting," to open the season with a smaller-scale piece, but the entire crew, from conductor to orchestra to chorus to the main cast, pulled it off with zest.
The plot concerns Mustafa, bey of Algiers who finds his wife Elivra annoying, and decides to send her away and marry a slave he captured, Lindoro. Right off the bat, it was evident the cast had not only singing chops, but acting skills to match. Soprano Natalie Weinberg’s portrayal of dejected, rejected Elvira won major sympathy points, along with admiration of her strong, supple sound. By contrast, everyone quickly grew to loathe Mustafa, played as a quintessential misogynistic jerk by bass baritone Rafael Porto, singing with command and arrogance.
As the plot rolls along, we find Elvira’s maid, Zulma (mezzo soprano Anna Hashizume), doing her best to console her friend. I wish Rossini had written a bigger part for Zulma, but Hashizume does all she can, singing with a pleasingly clear yet rich tone. Mustafa comes to want a new wife — an Italian one to be exact — and sends his captain Haly, who is a bit of a jerk as well, ably sung by baritone Heeseung Chae, to find one for him.
He ends up finding the beautiful, shipwrecked Isabella, a confident, intelligent woman who is actually trying to find her long lost lover, Lindoro. Soprano Deniz Uzun's full, alluring voice was perfectly suited to Isabella’s character, and her aria Cruda Sorte was exemplary. Tenor Lucas Wassmer captured Lindoro’s tender moments so well, with sensitivity and warmth (particularly when he sang about Isabella in "Languir per una bella") which made up for his occasional lack of projection.
But the scene stealer was often Taddeo, an admirer of Isabella's who was captured with her. Baritone Bruno Sandes has a bold, mature voice, and was absolutely hilarious without ever going overboard.
The cast was just as good when performing as an ensemble — and the opera chorus had a well rounded, mature sound, on par with the cast.
Conductor Mario Conti had a firm grasp of the score, and the IU Concert Orchestra was well prepared with a sophisticated sound. Although they are a student ensemble, their musical maturity was impressive. The same can be said of all the students involved with the production. Scenic Designer Robert O’Hearn went conservative with his sets, which were nonetheless effective. With such high caliber performances, it’s unsurprising that IU’s Opera Theater program is so highly regarded.