Horne excels in 'L'Italiana'

'L'Italiana in Algeri', Starring Marilyn Horne The Metropolitan Opera's revival of Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri" with Marilyn Horne is vivid proof that there is no substitution for great singing at America's foremost opera house.

One can quibble all one wants about Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's fussy, gag-a-minute production that is more often funny than not (even if, too often, at the expense of Rossini). But there can be no quibbling with Miss Horne's phenomenal handling of the role of the Italian girl Isabella, whose bout with the Bey of Algiers leads to antics and high jinks that only Rossini could render so aptly and delightfully in music.

Miss Horne, quite simply, gave another of her seemingly endless (and endlessly rewarding) studies in the art of bel canto -- complete with thrilling roulades, seamless phrasings, those electrifying leaps from high register to low . . . the range of vocal feats one has come to expect from her. Of course, one also knows they will all be executed on a superior level, even if, as in this performance, one or two high notes were not squarely hit.

What makes Miss Horne so outstanding is the stage personality that goes with this stupendous singing. Every flourish is telegraphed to the large house, every gesture can be felt from front row to last row of the top balcony -- the famous Family Circle. It is a Met-sized talent, and we are privileged, these lean days, to have her there.

She had quite a cast around her. Rockwell Blake, as everyone who has read about him now knows, has artistry dripping from every pore, a very engaging stage presence, a fluency of technique astounding in this day and age, and a voice of some solidity and presence, if devoid of tonal allure.Still, the Met has been regaled with far uglier "Rossini tenor" voices in the past, mostly without Blake's style and exuberance.

Sesto Bruscantini makes a long-overdue debut run as Taddeo, underplaying the part to superb effect. Kathleen Battle's Elvira is another fetching, limpidly sung laurel in her admittedly too slender wreath of Met engagements. Allan Monk is an imposing Haly. Ara Berberian does not quite make it as the Bey, Mustafa, for though he sings it fairly well, given a basically gruff instrument, his rather doltish characterization is neither traditionally buffo, nor particularly funny, except near the end. In a cast of lively performers, his mere adequacy stood out.

In the pit, Nicola Rescigno had his liveliest outing to date, suffusing the score -- the first Met hearing of the Azio Corghi critical edition -- with melodic warmth and witty atmosphere.

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