Italian girl takes flight

Updated version of Rossini’s exotic opera portrays the main character as bold and daring woman

Calgary Opera is opening its season with one of Gioachino Rossini’s lesser known operas the 200-year-old The Italian Girl in Algiers .

“I bet if there had been a Bugs Bunny cartoon we’d know about this one too” jokes mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy explaining why in North America The Barber of Seville is top of mind when the name Rossini comes up. (“The Rabbit of Seville” was released in 1950 with Bugs and Elmer Fudd doing battle to Rossini’s music.)

Rossini wrote The Italian Girl in Algiers when he was only 21 years old. McHardy says it’s staged more frequently in Europe than in North America though she credits The Santa Fe Opera Company’s 2002 production with increasing its popularity in Canada and the United States.

McHardy plays the titular Italian girl Isabella the fourth time she has portrayed the character in a production. In fact Isabella is one of her “signature roles.”

“I feel very comfortable with Rossini. The Italian Girl is one of the lower Rossinis. I’m often hired for lower roles and I enjoy singing the low notes” says McHardy who was last seen at Calgary Opera in its 2009 production of Little Women .

This version of The Italian Girl in Algiers was conceived by The Santa Fe Opera nearly a decade ago. The action takes place in the 1930s and Isabella is something of an Amelia Earhart figure. Unlike in Rossini’s original staging where Isabella finds herself shipwrecked along the coast of Algiers in this production the plane she pilots crashes along Algiers’ shore.

Isabella is on a quest to find her lost love Lindoro. She is taken to the palace of Bey Mustafa a wealthy local leader who has tired of his wife Elvira and wants to add an Italian girl to his harem. Mustafa finds Isabella enchanting and is eager to welcome her to his harem. Meanwhile he has given Elvira to his Italian slave Lindoro the very man Isabella has been seeking.

Isabella then spends the rest of the story finding a way to reunite Elvira with Mustafa save herself from his harem and escape with Lindoro.

“Sometimes people think Rossini’s operas aren’t very deep. Maybe the stories aren’t so deep but the characters are” says McHardy. “I feel that this Rossini has such an open heart and a real warmth and genuineness about it even though it’s an exotic theme.”

When Rossini wrote the opera in the early 19th century Algiers (now the capital of present-day Algeria) was part of the Ottoman Empire. Attacks on Christian ships were common and ships’ occupants were sold into slavery in the Republic of Algiers.

However McHardy points out that The Italian Girl in Algiers is not setting out to make any deep cultural commentary. “You could take this show out of the Arab envelope stick it in Scotland and make kilt jokes…. What’s being explored here is an independent woman who knows her own mind and goes for what she wants. When she’s put up against a guy who just wants a little bit of romantic divertissement it’s easy to see who’s going to come out on top — no pun intended” McHardy says.

As such she says portraying Isabella as an early female aviator helps acquaint the audience even on a subconscious level with some of her traits as a bold skilled adventurous daring woman.

McHardy says this opera requires physical stamina and she has to plan when to breathe because she’s always moving. The music itself is also dynamic. “There are vocal pyrotechnics as well as moments of great sincerity and beauty” she explains. “It’s music of extremes. It’s super high and super low.”

For those uninitiated in the art form she says The Italian Girl in Algiers is the perfect introduction.

“It doesn’t ask a whole lot of the audience. You can just sit back and enjoy it and enjoy how fabulous all of my colleagues are. The design is fantastical. It’s like a storybook. It’s really colourful and fun and hilarious. Just let it wash over you.”