“Elvira and Isabella paddle frantically, go over waterfall in canoe. Taddeo turns into vulture, flies up to perch on throne. Elvira turns into a lighthouse and shines her beacon. Haly turns into zombie, eats Mustafa’s brains. Chorus becomes seal lions, clap flippers.”
A description of a really bad drug trip? No, those are the blocking notes for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s production of “The Italian Girl in Algiers,” which opens Saturday for four performances at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre.
Gioachino Rossini’s madcap farce is about to get the full Looney Tunes treatment from stage director Michael Cavanagh, who previously directed memorable productions of “The Rake’s Progress” and “Nixon in China” for the Lyric.
Cavanagh is setting the opera between World Wars I and II and has turned the title character, Isabella, into an aviatrix. The headstrong Italian girl and her traveling companion, Taddeo, crash land and Isabella falls into the clutches of the bey (chieftain) of Algiers. That’s when the fun begins.
“Rossini operas have a real formula, they have a template,” Cavanagh said. “Something stupefying befalls the characters and they sing for quite some time about how their brains are pounding and whirling and swirling and nothing makes any sense to them anymore and their worlds have been turned topsy-turvy. So I send my characters off on this hallucinatory journey.
“Because of the coastal setting, we do the first half of this journey in a water setting with waterfalls, whirlpools, vortexes and lifeboats. They (Isabella and Taddeo) wash up onshore, and they’re either walruses or castaways.
“Then they’re suddenly stranded in the Sahara desert and have to wander aimlessly and turn into zombies and other such tomfoolery. It’s all just good old-fashioned silliness.”
Certain directors, especially those in Europe, have taken the sledgehammer-between-the-eyes approach to “Italian Girl” and played up the West versus Islam theme, often portraying Mustafa as Moammar Gadhafi.
“It’s not appropriate, and it’s not funny,” Cavanagh said. “I find nothing comedic about Moammar Gadhafi and his regime.
“Besides, there’s no reference to Islam in the opera. Mustafa is not a mullah. He’s the guy in charge. He’s a stand-in for the mayor of Rome or the guy in charge in any situation.
“It’s certainly not West versus East or Italy versus Algeria by any means. It’s a girl looking for her lover who goes up against a big, grown-up baby who throws tantrums at the slightest provocation.”
Irene Roberts, who sings the role of Isabella, says that her character, even in Rossini’s original setting, is the kind of fiercely independent woman our modern world can relate to.
“She’s adventurous, very clever, very smart and a bit conniving in a good way,” Roberts said. “She’s not a damsel in distress, and having her in pants and knee-high boots and jacket, the whole getup, makes it easier for me to get into her adventurous, type A character.
“She knows exactly how to handle Mustafa. One of the first things she says in the opera is that she knows exactly how to deal with men. I think she finds Mustafa to be quite amusing. He’s definitely unlike any man she’s come across. I think she sees him as a bit of an animal.”
Like Roberts, Patrick Carfizzi, who sings the role of Mustafa, will be making his Lyric Opera debut.
“Patrick is completely delightful,” Cavanagh said. “He’s totally embraced the idea of this villainous character who’s not really very villainous. Mustafa’s never been denied anything, so the only thing he wants now is what he’s not allowed to have. And that’s a really human trait.
“I know these people. They’re walking around the streets of Kansas City. They have such a sense of entitlement that they expect the world to be handed to them, and if they don’t get it, they throw these little fits.”
By avoiding the dark, unsettling themes that so many directors find in “Italian Girl,” Cavanagh believes he is being faithful to the true nature of the opera and its composer.
“Rossini was a bon vivant, he really was,” Cavanagh said. “He loved to entertain. He wanted to let the eye candy and the ear candy and the heart candy hit you. It’s a divertissement, as they’d call it in France. It’s a vaudeville, an entertainment, and we embrace that in this production.”
Roberts wholeheartedly agrees with Cavanagh’s approach and says she is having a blast working on the production.
“We actually have a hard time getting through rehearsal because of all the belly laughs,” she said. “We have a really fun cast, which is always great. It’s definitely going to be over-the-top funny, pure entertainment.”
There’s a reason Rossini is constantly cropping up in cartoons, from Bugs Bunny’s “The Rabbit of Seville” to Animaniacs. His comedic operas have the fizzy unpredictability of a bottle rocket blowing up in Daffy Duck’s face. “Italian Girl in Algiers” is the sort of opera you’d like to be able to watch in your jammies while eating a bowl of Corn Pops.
“Far too often people think that going to the opera is kind of like eating their vegetables,” Cavanagh said. “They enjoy it, but it’s mostly because it’s good for them. But opera is entertainment, especially this one.
“People think they need to do research and find out what this show is dealing with, but with this one you need to do absolutely no preparation.
“You buy your ticket, you sit in your chair, and let all the fabulous tunes and the pretty pictures and the silly gags and the charming love story just wash over you. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
William Baker Festival Singers
Dreary November probably isn’t the favorite month of very many people, but I love it. Bare trees, the damp smell of decay and low-slanting light incline one to contemplate one’s brief and bittersweet existence. It’s a spiritual pause before the unbridled celebrations of the holiday season.
The William Baker Festival Singers directed by William Baker will offer a November-like contemplative concert Saturday in Helzberg Hall.
The program will feature heart-tugging choral music by Johannes Brahms and Edvard Grieg and the Funeral Ikos (hymn sung for a feast day) by the English composer John Tavener, who passed away last November. Tavener, a convert to the Russian Orthodox Church, often infused his works with the mysticism so typical of Eastern Orthodoxy. His Funeral Ikos is typical in that regard, with its chant-like sound and text drawn from the Orthodox liturgy.
The Festival Singers will also perform “Songs of the Holocaust” by William Dreyfoos based on texts by Polish children who perished under the Nazis.
“The era of World War II brought many heroes,” Baker said. “My own father was one, decorated with a Silver Star for his service in Italy.
“But there are no greater heroes than the children of the Jewish ghettos in Poland. Their songs of faith and courage, even in the very clutches of evil and death, were more powerful than all of the weapons of the Nazis. These beautiful songs tell their story, a story that needs to be told and heard over and over again.”