If Saturday's live PBS telecast of Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algieri" proved anything conclusively, it is this: Director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's canny use of the whole stage and TV opera's traditional close-up-of-the-singers mind set are dramatic oil and vinegar.
Ponnelle's trademarks--large geometric shapes, utilizing large numbers of bodies, and very original and telling details that one might notice sitting in the Metropolitan Opera House--are wasted within the narrow parameters of the small screen. Instead, the cameras lavished much of their attention on Marilyn Horne's quivering lips and basso Paolo Montarsolo's circumflex eyebrows--leaving the viewer with scant sense of the stage but plenty to tell Horne's dentist about her premolars.
When one closed one's eyes, however, matters were improved considerably. Horne, of course, was in her element in the fioriture of the title role, and her voice sounds almost as fresh as it did two decades ago. Montarsolo cannot make the same vocal claim; whatever woolly bass he may once have commanded has been denuded into a Bert Lahr as Cowardly Lion facsimile. But his comic acting was nicely underplayed, and his Mustafa provided much of the opera's dramatic thrust. Tenor Douglas Ahlstedt was excellent as Lindoro, the Italian Girl's subdued amour. Of the other four featured singers, only baritone Allan Monk as Isabella's elderly admirer Taddeo rose above the routine.
Conductor James Levine switched on the orchestra's afterburners in the middle of the Overture, and it was off to the races from then to the ultimo finale .