SAN DIEGO — The qualities that make operatic plots timeless have nothing to do with setting, scenery or costumes. Character and passion, drama and resolution produce the glories of any lyric-theater work, whether it be tragedy or comedy. The updating of action or changing of locales can bring the observer--the audience, at whom all things operatic are aimed--closer to the drama and it is justified.
In San Diego Opera's production of Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri" (The Italian Girl in Algiers), which opened Saturday night at the Civic Theatre, the action has been brought up to the 1920s, giving the attractive young cast many chances to wear flattering "Death on the Nile"-era clothes.
There are no contradictions in this updating, of course: The duping of an authoritative and powerful but thoroughly dense man by a clever woman is the very stuff of operatic comedy, and has been so, actually, for centuries.
This mounting by Zack Brown--borrowed from Washington Opera--is awash in pretty colors, clarified lighting (by Kendall Smith) and skeletal but atmospheric scenery--which actually consists mostly of two dozen white pillars and a few pieces of furniture. Nevertheless, and bolstered by those handsome costumes, it works.
More important, Leon Major's witty and pragmatic stage direction--which sometimes (and not inappropriately) uses Gilbert & Sullivan-style conventions of movement--keeps the visual proceedings lively. For the most part, the cast succeeds in fleshing out these conventions even when silly gimmicks--a very funny scenario enacted during the overture, a bicycle ballet to accompany a duet, etc.--take over the stage.
And, also for the most part, the principals sing well. In the case of the titular heroine, very well, indeed.
Without grandstanding or flourishes, Vivica Genaux, who was an irresistible Rosina in Opera Pacific's "Barbiere di Siviglia" last spring, makes a personal triumph of Isabella. She sings enchantingly and musically, negotiates all the technical fireworks without strain, and moves throughout the rangy role in utter command.
On the stage, she takes charge and moves like a tiger, as Isabella should. The bonus is that she looks completely believable as the mesmerizing charmer who has three of the males in the cast--not to mention the chorus and supers--in her power.
Crucially, Mustafa, Bey of Algiers, must hold up the other side of the comedic equation. San Diego Opera veteran John Del Carlo does this expertly, singing with great skill--even though the voice can be cloudy and undistinctive--and making the disparities in the character's qualities credible.
Making his United States debut, German bass Reinhard Dorn brings musical suavity and personal charm to the role of Taddeo, Isabella's steady suitor. Anita de Simone is a stage-worthy but thin-toned Elvira, Bruce Fowler a game, unpretty-sounding Lindoro, Ava Baker Liss strongly promising as Zulma and James Butler a serviceable, good-looking Haly.
Throughout, the pit orchestra plays confidently--its Overture emerged particularly bright and balanced--under Karen Keltner's exigent leadership. The chorus, trained by Martin Wright, had strong and weak moments, but more of the former.
* San Diego Opera presents Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri" at the Civic Theatre, 3rd Avenue at B Street, San Diego, Tuesday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. $25-$80. (619) 236-6510.