The Italian Girl in Algiers

St James Theatre 2, Wellington

09/05/2009 - 16/05/2009

ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland

28/05/2009 - 06/06/2009

Production Details

Zany opera to banish recession blues

Modern, sexy, sassy, fun – The NBR New Zealand Opera’s daring new production of The Italian Girl in Algiers, opening in May, is opera as you have most likely never seen it before.

Director Colin McColl and Set Designer Tony Rabbit both have reputations for thinking well outside the square. Their take on The Italian Girl in Algiers will be scintillating and surprising, with much of what they have in store for audiences remaining under wraps until opening night.

"We’re giving audiences a taste of something totally new with this production," says Colin McColl. "By adopting an untraditional way of looking at this opera buffa favourite we have come up with a concept that hasn’t been done before in this country. Music aside," he adds, "this opera is basically a very funny sex comedy with all the twists and turns of a daytime soap opera or sitcom, with all the glib morality of that genre. And while I can’t give away exactly the direction we’re taking, I can say that we’ve incorporated something of that in our production – we want it to zing for today’s audiences."

General Director of The NBR New Zealand Opera, Aidan Lang says that he felt it was time the Company presented a comedy. "While we programmed this opera long before the recession took hold, it now seems timely to be giving audiences a night of pure escapism and zany comedy, a chance to just kick back and have a thoroughly good time. And though this opera does have a fairly madcap plot, it actually bears a strong resemblance to everyday life. There is much to identify with in the characters and how they live their lives."

A strong contingent of New Zealand singers are secured for the lead roles. London based mezzo soprano Wendy Dawn Thompson – now a major name overseas – is returning to sing the feisty Isabella. The irrepressible Conal Coad takes on the role of the lusty Mustafà. Hot young German tenor Christian Baumgärtel makes his NBR New Zealand Opera debut as Lindoro, and established and highly regarded Australian baritone Warwick Fyfe sings Taddeo.

Three talented New Zealanders complete the principal artist line-up: Katherine Wiles has a release from her Opera Australia contract to perform the role of Elvira; Auckland-based Richard Green sings Haly; and also returning from overseas, The NBR New Zealand Opera’s new PwC Dame Malvina Major Young Artist Kristen Darragh joins the cast as Zulma.

The Company’s esteemed Director of Music, Wyn Davies, takes the podium; alongside him are the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus, Vector Wellington Orchestra and Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

Colin McColl and Tony Rabbit are complemented in the creative department by Costume Designer Nic Smillie.

The Italian Girl in Algiers returns to Wellington and Auckland stages after an absence of more than 20 years. A collaboration with Scottish Opera, the production travels to Scotland for a series of performances in October following its New Zealand season.

The Italian Girl in Algiers is energetic, fast and funny – a pure antidote to the recession blues…

The Italian Girl in Algiers 

Wellington – St James Theatre
Sat 9, Thu 14 and Sat 16 May (7:30pm), Tue 12 May (6:00pm)

Auckland – Aotea Centre, THE EDGE®
Thu 28, Sat 30 May, Thu 4 and Sat 6 June (7:30pm), Tue 2 June (6:30pm)

Single Tickets: $49.50 to $187.50. Concessions available. Service fees apply.
Bookings: The NBR NZ Opera Box Office, Tel (09) 379 4068 or (04) 499 8343, or:
Wellington: Ticketek outlets nationwide, Tel 0800 TICKETEK (0800 842 538) or
Auckland: The Edge Box office, Tel (09) 357 3355 or visit

Further information at

The NBR New Zealand Opera receives core funding from Creative New Zealand
The Italian Girl in Algiers is made possible with major support from Pub Charity

Photo: L-R, Warwick Fyfe, Renee Newport, Conal Coad 

A dazzling, stellar Isabella

Review by John Button 12th May 2009

Although most opera fanciers know of this opera, mostly through concert performances, or recordings of the overture, few will have experienced it in the theatre. And recordings do little justice to The Italian Girl in Algiers, for this impossibly slight farce is mostly about sharp ensemble acting, and the comedic talents of the cast.

Not that the musical demands can be ignored for, although the musical invention is very slender, the vocal abilities of the performers are stretched to the limit. Apart from a few solo arias the singing, outside the recitatives, is a long series of demanding ensembles. Duets, trios quartets, quintets and sextets abound and the coloratura requirements of the bel canto period leaves every one exposed.

Thanks to great casting all bases are covered in this supremely polished, endlessly effervescent, production.

Rossini could have created the role of Mustafa for Conal Coad, the quintessential basso buffo, and he plays the part to the hilt. So, too, does Warwick Fyfe as the fall guy Taddeo, revealing a gorgeously rich voice into the bargain. Christian Baumgartel is stylish as Lindoro, his light tenor providing a fine contrast to the bass voices.

In the supporting roles of Elvira, Haly and Zulma, Katherine Wiles, Richard Green and Kristen Darragh are all one could ask. The chorus is superb and the orchestra under Wyn Davies, after a slightly sluggish start goes from strength to strength.

But without a charismatic Isabella there is not much point in doing this opera, and here Wendy Dawn Thompson is the complete package. She looks dazzling, fully capable of wowing Mustafa, she acts splendidly – does anyone do a better operatic laugh? – and she can sing.

The production, a co-production with Scottish Opera, is very, very clever. Set as a soap opera, we have the set with a green background simultaneous with its background on a screen. This brings its own hilarious moments, adding to both the complexity and chaos of an already heady mixture.

This is brilliant theatre, and when one considers just how much could have gone wrong, it is dazzlingly realised.
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A grand night of entertainment

Review by Pepe Becker 10th May 2009

Viva l’Italia! …and Viva Nuova Zelanda! They say one should have a good belly laugh once a day, and this NZ-made co-production between NBR New Zealand Opera and Scottish Opera of Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers gives us plenty.

It’s all about entertaining the punters these days, and whilst it would be equally satisfying and amusing, for some, to see a period-style rendition of this opera (first performed in Venice in 1813), this particular show no doubt appeals to a wider audience, accessible not only to the ‘now’ generation of young adults (with all the techno stuff), but also to those of us who are old enough to remember the rather colourful and vibrant 1970s, which the fabulous costumes seem to allude to.

Presented within the context of a Latino soap opera (named "Algiers", this being the "Italian girl episode"), sung in Italian with English surtitles, this production encapsulates all the over-the-top, farcical elements of authentic opera buffa (comedic opera, which first developed in Naples in the 18th Century as an alternative to the ‘higher art form’ of opera seria); and yet transforms seamlessly into a kind of modern-retro setting with hilariously successful results.

The singing is excellently characterized, and the acting is superbly funny all round – so much so that occasionally it’s to the slight expense of vocal finesse, though in the context this really doesn’t matter at all, since we’re all having so much fun!

The plot is made of typical soap-opera stuff, so it’s not surprising it works so well as an actual soap opera: Mustafà, the powerful yet bumbling Bey of Algiers, has grown sick of his wife Elvira, so asks his henchman Haly to find him an Italian girl, declaring he wants to divorce Elvira and marry her off to one of his staff, Lindoro; meanwhile, Lindoro is longing for his lost love, Isabella, who coincidentally turns up shipwrecked on the shores of Mustafà’s private island with her sugar-daddy Taddeo; Haly takes the two survivors prisoner and is delighted to discover that Isabella is Italian – just what the boss ordered! However, mayhem, misunderstanding and manipulation ensue from the point that the estranged lovers Isabella and Lindoro see each other…all ends well – I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say, the leading lady gets her way.

In this fantastic production, ingeniously created by the team of set-and-lighting designer Tony Rabbit and costume designer Nic Smillie, under the clever direction of Colin McColl and assistant director Jacqueline Coats, the action takes place either on Mustafà’s private super-yacht, on the beach, or in rehearsal at the TV studio, with a huge green-screen backdrop on stage, which enables scenery and props (such as other boats, fish, moving sea-water, and indoor rooms of the super-yacht) to be superimposed onto a smaller raised screen – so we get to see the ‘live’ action and the ‘on-screen’ action simultaneously – it’s brilliant! There is some inevitable delay between the two, which takes a bit of getting used to, but the uniqueness of seeing the facial expressions up close on the screen (which one normally doesn’t experience), the subtle and very funny background absurdities (such as a randomly reappearing blow-up plastic seal) and the interplay between the live and projected images, more than makes up for that.

To the singing, then…

Right from her first "cruda sorte", Wendy Dawn Thompson, a Kiwi who has returned from Britain to give us her debut performances as Isabella, claims the stage and her character, and she positively sparkles her way through the opera as if she’s played the part many times before. Her nuances of rubato and coloratura were exemplary on opening night, and hers was the singing that gave me the one spine-tingle of the evening.

Conal Coad is brilliantly blustery in the basso buffo role of Mustafà, eliciting many a laugh from the delighted audience. German tenor Christian Baumgärtel also impresses as the pining lover, and is hilarious in his quick adjustment from ‘rehearsal mode’ in the studio to the crooning on-screen ‘prima-mano’ as soon as the camera rolls. Taddeo (sung by Australian baritone Warwick Fyfe) is also excellent and extremely funny, his singing rich and strong, making good use of vocal characterization to complement his acting.

In the other main roles, all taken by NZ-born singers, soprano Katherine Wiles is superbly simpering as Mustafà’s spurned wife, projecting well in the higher tessitura; Richard Green plays a confident and dedicated Haly; and 2009 Lexus-finalist Kristen Darragh has great stage-presence (literally and figuratively) throughout, her clear yet robust mezzo ideally suited to this genre.

The supporting roles of ‘beach babes’ and ‘script-writers’ and the choruses of Turkish and Italian men are also excellently acted and sung, the characters obviously having a ball with the humorous presentation of the production – the nature of the show meant that some of the chorus had extra solo or small ensemble ‘cameos’ to perform, which they obviously relished and carried off with aplomb.

Special mention should go to Stephen Butterworth, who plays the coke-snorting, stroppy TV director with great attitude and panache – and he obviously enjoys getting the last word too!

The Wellington Vector Orchestra, under the baton of experienced conductor, Welsh-born Wyn Davies, supports the cast well, with flashes of brilliance from the woodwind in particular and excellent (albeit electronically-produced, due to financial constraints) harpsichord accompaniment played by Bruce Greenfield in the recitatives. Initially, the orchestra seems to cover the low-register solo singing somewhat, but again, the acoustic is something one gets used to as things progress.

This show has myriad quirky props and ideas that add to the humour, including motorized scooters, waterski ropes, blow-up marine mammals and ‘invisible’ waiters serving drinks; and every attention has been given to the most minute of details – for example, when Mustafà sneezes to signal to Taddeo, he does so ‘in Italian’, with the syllables "e ci!" instead of ‘ah-choo!’

Ah, ’tis all good fun – my only small gripes are twofold: sometimes the background ‘crew’ are a little too busy in their movements whilst the leads are singing in dialogue or ensembles, which is occasionally distracting, though realistic I guess, in a backstage film studio situation; and on several occasions (usually during quiet moments) there were, on opening night, stray balloons (presumably left over from dress rehearsal, or escapee balloons perhaps?) popping from on high.

Overall, this is a grand night of entertainment, which I highly recommend…

As NBR NZO’s General Director Aidan Lang had hoped, this "thoroughly entertaining night at the opera" definitely serves as "a welcome pick-me-up in these times of recession". I for one found it thoroughly good fun, and wish the cast and crew all good luck for the remaining performances in Wellington and Auckland.

In bocca al lupo! (Literally meaning, for those who don’t know, ‘into the mouth of the wolf!’, this is an Italian / operatic way of saying ‘good luck!’ or ‘break a leg!’)
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 



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