Angela Allen

Pizza, bathing suits, peeping-Tom camels, selfie-sticks, a chorus dressed in modest underwear and a ruler in a loin cloth were among wacky details in Portland Opera’s The Italian Girl in Algiers (L’Italiana in Algeri) at its July 22 premiere in Portland’s Newmark Theatre.

These contemporary comic touches enlivened Gioachino Rossini’s silly laugh-happy story about a kidnapped Italian tourist who turns the tables on her bombastic bejeweled captor, Mustafa, the harem-holding head honcho of Algiers. This production’s direction, set, timing, choreography and acting combined to make this Italian Girl so appealing, so au courant, so unstuffy.

Rossini composed the opera in 1813 at 21 years old – in 18 days, according to Rossini himself – to Angelo Anneli’s libretto. A hit when it premiered the same year in Venice, then and now, it is touted for its feel-good entertainment, its stunning bel canto singing, and its lyrical music that bridges the Classical and Romantic periods. Rossini was nicknamed the “Italian Mozart.”

But it was this production’s non-musical elements made this version sing. This Girl is a Portland Opera original. The staging, set in no particular time or place but rather on the topsy-turvy playground of life, captured a timeless absurdity, thanks to the brilliant direction of Christian Räth, in Portland for the first time. A German-Swiss global directing pro at making comic (and other) operas come alive, he created a funny and ever-timely East-West world, where no one really understands one another.

Comedy depends so much on timing, precision and details, and most of the time, all worked in concert. If you didn’t chortle or laugh out loud throughout most of the opera, you should have your funny bone checked out.

Daniel Meeker’s inventive set is a raised and sloped “playground,” spread out to fill the stage on a giant Middle Eastern carpet. The playground serves multiple purposes. It operates as a beach, a landscape, a boudoir, a wall, a desert, a tourist route. Its unevenness speaks to the madcap unpredictable energy of the opera. Sue Bonde’s costumes, which you can’t fit into era or box, and Connie Yun’s stark primary-color lighting kept intact the timeless-yet-modern vibe. Former dancer Anne Egan’s choreography maintained the liveliness and laughs.

The comic timing and dazzling singing of the cast, most of whom were making their PO debuts, capitalized on Rossini’s elegant, fluid music. The Italian girl, Isabella, sung emotionally by the curvaceous mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano, was the undisputed star and plot game-changer, but her surrounding and supporting cast also had many moments to shine.

Tenor Jonathan Johnson as Isabella’s Italian lover, Lindoro, and Ashraf Sewailam, the Egyptian-born bass-baritone who plays Mustafa, topped my favorites, but all of the singers were very good as they portrayed radically different characters. Their music fits each of them.

Sewailam has an exquisitely hilarious moment toward the end of the second act where he eats pizza and sings (at the same time) as he becomes a member of Isabella’s drummed-up “Pappataci” order, whose members “eat, sleep and pay no attention” (so Isabella and her lover can escape). Mustafa is honored with a red-and-white checked tablecloth, which replaced his gold satin “sweat suit” befitting a rapper.

PO resident artist Ryan Thorn does a bang-up job of playing Taddeo, an Italian suitor of Isabella who’s wrapped in a rug with a lampshade on his head for most of the opera. He has a full-on baritone and plays his role with a wry, and sometimes naïve, sensibility. It’s hard to keep a straight face when he’s onstage.

At every turn, Isabella gets the best of the men who try to possess her. Gender roles turn upside down. “All men are the same. They want the same things, more or less,” Isabella sings (in Italian.) We are obsessed by love, money, power, sex – so why not gain control, and make men happy in the process – surely a premise worth exploiting for laughs and an upper hand.

There’s a nod to gender fluidity when Mustafa’s lieutenant Haly (bass-bari Deac Guidi) sings an aria exalting Isabella. He minces across the stage, carrying Isabella’s large Italian black leather purse and posing in her white-rimmed sunglasses. It was another funny, nerve-touching moment here in Portlandia.

George Manahan’s light-handed musical direction was as meticulous as the comic technique of the cast. He had a playful grin on his face throughout most of the two-act opera.

The opera continues at the Newmark for five more performances, alternating with the PO’s Eugene Onegin. The 870-seat venue with no one sitting more than 65 feet from the stage provides the intimacy that this comic piece deserves. PO productions are commonly staged at the rambling 2,992-seat Keller Auditorium but this season, two of the four major shows are at the Newmark.

As French writer Stendahl said in 1813 after seeing The Italian Girl, “Music like this makes one forget all the sadness of the world.”

But the other production elements made her more than merely likable. Lovable is the better word.