Established in 2011, Pop-up Opera visits the places where other groups fear to tread. Its current run of L’italiana in Algeri will see it perform in tunnels and tythe barns across London and the UK as it alters Rossini’s creation to an extent that even Calixto Bieito, given entirely free rein by English National Opera, would not contemplate.
The beauty of opera on such a small scale is that it can take enormous liberties with works by making them just part and parcel of a novel approach. In this instance, the setting is transferred to the Algiers Hotel in Las Vegas so that The Italian Girl in Algiers becomes The Italian-American Girl in the Casino Algiers, Las Vegas, Nevada! Mustafa is the proprietor who performs in the show there with his wife Elvira, but her fading looks combined with his flirtatious ways see her break down mid-performance. Lindoro is a recovering gambling addict whose losses have left him indebted to Mustafa, while Isabella is an American-Italian who has come from the Midwest.
The plot continues in this vein, but its cleverness derives from the fact that for all of its innovation it parallels the original very closely. For example, Isabella plans to work her way into Mustafa’s confidence by auditioning as his new showgirl, while the notion of the pappataci is retained, only now the term describes the new extravagant show that Mustafa is persuaded to stage.
James Hurley’s production is tight and the touches throughout amusing. As befitting the new setting, much is made of the act of putting on a show so that on occasions boards are held up cueing the audience to applaud and laugh. The opera is sung in Italian and, while there are no surtitles, projections on the wall paraphrase the recitatives and arias. In the process they come across as the type of captions that might appear in silent movies, except that the language is sometimes earthier. Elvira sings ‘Oh, I’m past it, Mustafa doesn’t fancy me any more’ while Zulma responds ‘You’ve still got it babe. Show must go on’. Later the verdict on Isabella is ‘That Italian-American girl is a wily bitch’ while another slide informs us that we are hearing ‘Rossini’s world-famous sneezing quintet’ and that the dating powder sub-plot is definitely in the original, ‘honest’!
Although there is a lot going on throughout, the expressions and gestures make everything easily understandable while the projections provide other useful pointers. In keeping with the gambling theme, as each character first appears so too does a playing card (Mustafa is the King of Clubs, Elvira the Queen, Lindoro the Jack of Diamonds, Isabella the Queen of Hearts and Taddeo the Three of Clubs) that briefs us on their traits.
I saw this production in the Brunel Museum Thames Tunnel Shaft (there are further performances there on 2 and 3 July) and the venue feels just as novel as anything to be found in the production. Situated at Rotherhithe it is the original shaft that Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel built to create the Thames Tunnel, which still exists today as part of the London Overground. Getting into the venue is an experience in itself as everyone is required to crouch through a low doorway and descend a sturdy scaffold staircase. All this, however, is part of the fun (although if it sounds too much other venues on the tour will be more accessible) and the setting of this large underground cylindrical chamber is quite astonishing. It is used to good effect in the production with the audience seated inches from the action, and the performers frequently coming down the centre aisle and appearing behind the rows.
No-one ever would, or should, deliberately design a music venue to possess this space’s acoustic, but in this context it proves excellent as its natural echo magnifies the voices. If this generally helps the singers, they still deserve credit because it would equally multiply any imperfections. The acoustic is put to particularly good use when Isabella and Taddeo sing from opposite sides of the ‘drum’ with Taddeo directing his voice towards the wall on a few occasions to rebound and hence exaggerate his sound.
The score is played on a single keyboard by the musical director Berrak Dyer, and although this is not necessarily the ideal way to enjoy Rossini’s music, with very strong performances from the cast it hardly matters. Oskar McCarthy and Amy Payne are good as Taddeo and Zulma respectively, while Bruno Loxton proves an excellent Mustafa with a robust and weighty bass voice that positively reverberates around the chamber. Catrin Woodruff has a sweet and clear soprano as Elvira while Helen Stanley as Isabella and Oliver Brignall as Lindoro really grow, both vocally and dramatically, across the evening. Pop-up Opera’s L’italiana in Algeri is certainly a lot of fun, but the enjoyment ultimately derives from witnessing something so different from the norm being carried off so well in its own right.
Casts vary over the run. Pop-up Opera’s L’italiana in Algeri appears at various venues around London and the UK until 28 July (with one further performance at the Anne of Cleves barn, Essex on 6 October). For further details visit the Pop-up Opera website.