Last night, my mother, my sister-in-law and Joshua and I went to Minnesota Opera’s presentation of Rossini’s “L’Italiana In Algeri”. My father stayed home, preferring to spend the evening with my older brother and my nephew.
One thing I like about Minnesota Opera is that the company offers its performances in The Ordway Center in Saint Paul. The Ordway Center, a multi-use facility shared by Minnesota Opera, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and The Schubert Club, has an auditorium that is an ideal size for opera performance. The auditorium seats only 1900 persons, much smaller than both opera houses in New York and the opera houses in Chicago and San Francisco. In fact, it is even smaller than the Opera House of The Kennedy Center in Washington, an auditorium that has always struck me, purely from a size perspective, as an ideal venue for opera.
Voices do not have to strain to be heard in The Ordway Center, and the acoustics are quite fine throughout the house. As a result, Minnesota Opera does not have to restrict its engagements to singers with giant voices.
Last night’s performance was the third of five performances of “Italiana”.
The reason we did not want to miss “Italiana” was because Vivica Genaux was appearing as Isabella. Minnesota Opera is a small regional opera company, with a modest annual budget, and the company seldom engages major singers who command high fees. Vivica Genaux is the only “name” singer on the boards at Minnesota Opera this season. (Last season, the sole “name” singer was Ewa Podles.)
The role of Isabella is Genaux’s signature role, and since 1993 it has served as her calling card as she has made her way onto the world’s stages everywhere. Genaux has sung with Minnesota Opera before, including a very fine “Cenerentola” a few years ago, but this season is her first Minnesota Opera Isabella.
She was enchanting, or so we thought. The coloratura of Isabella must be engraved into Genaux’s vocal cords by now, because her singing was effortless and clean, and totally even throughout her registers (which cannot be taken for granted in this repertory). There was no cheating and no smudging of the most difficult runs, and yet Genaux’s intonation remained pure all evening. It was a great realization of the musical requirements of the part.
Genaux has a small, focused voice, and she had no trouble filling the auditorium of The Ordway Center. However, her career in the largest venues has never been as prominent as it should be, and this is because her voice is not of a size to set giant theaters ringing.
As an actress, Genaux was captivating. She commanded the stage easily, and reacted well with her fellow cast members. She did not overpower the rest of the ensemble, but SHE was the figure on stage that was magnetic. SHE was the singer the audience found to be irresistible. SHE was the reason for this presentation.
Nothing else about the production was particularly good.
Besides Genaux, the only cast member who made a favorable impression was Wojtek Gierlach, a Polish bass portraying Mustafa. Gierlach has a solid but unremarkable voice, but his characterization was quite successful, and surprisingly wide-ranging. He was convincing in his despotic moments, in his buffoonish moments and in his serious moments, when he almost became a genuine human being. I would not object to seeing and hearing Gierlach again.
The physical production was borrowed from Santa Fe. A unit set (opening from a giant storybook) represented, with small adjustments, all the different scenic requirements. I thought the production looked cheap, and both unattractive and ineffective.
The production was updated to the 1930’s, evidenced mostly in the costuming and in the use of a bi-plane to whisk Isabella back to Europe at opera’s end (raising the question how her companions managed to leave Algiers, too).
The stage direction was brand new, and not based upon the stage direction of the Santa Fe production. It was very bad. Much of it was borrowed from the silent cinema—for instance, the cast was required to do slow, jerky movements, sometimes to the accompaniment of strobe lights—and this did not enhance the story unfolding onstage. The same director was responsible for last season’s equally-inept Minnesota Opera production of “The Tales Of Hoffman”. The company should stop engaging her.
The conductor, Robert Wood, was shockingly bad. A year ago, he was named Conductor-In-Chief of Minnesota Opera, and last season we heard him slog his way through a different Rossini opera, “La Donna Del Lago”. My parents also heard him conduct a “Marriage Of Figaro” last season that Josh and I skipped. My father says that Wood’s Mozart was an abomination, the most unmusical conducting he had ever encountered. After what I heard last night, I hope never to hear him again. Wood had no idea how to conduct Rossini, and he had no idea how to coordinate the playing in the pit with the singing on the stage. Much of the evening was spent on the verge of a total breakdown of ensemble between stage and pit. I think Wood is in the wrong line of work (and so, I am told, do the members of the orchestra).
Genaux provided enough pleasure, however, to make the performance worthwhile. She is a star in every sense of the term, at least when playing Isabella, and I felt privileged to witness a performance at such a high level of accomplishment. I would go hear her again in anything else by Rossini in an instant.