It has been 17 long months since Israelis have been able to enjoy live opera, a cultural drought which was finally brought to a rousing end earlier this month, with an all-too brief Israel Opera run of a little-known opera buffa by Giancarlo Rossini.
Interestingly, the last opera performed by the Israel Opera (in February of 2020) was also by Rossini -- the much more famous The Barber of Seville.
Although live performances with large audiences have resumed, some vestiges of Covid restrictions are very much in evidence. While the “green label” proof of vaccination is no longer required, masks must be worn at all times inside the premises; and there is no intermission (nor refreshment stands), in order to minimize mingling in the lobby.
Artistically as well, Covid remains a factor: it is likely, for example, that a short opera was chosen, in order to keep total performance time under two hours. More importantly, because of foreign travel complications, the current production relies almost entirely on local talent -- from the producer, director and stage managers to nearly all the artists; usually, of course, Israel Opera projects are the result of international collaborations.
Nevertheless, the overall quality was undiminished, and the production consummately professional. In fact, the consequence is that home-grown Israeli talent is given a better-than-ever opportunity to showcase their skills.
Both the producer and director, therefore, are native Israelis -- although coincidentally, both received their training in London, England. Each has also worked with the Israel Opera on many previous occasions: the former, Ido Ricklin, four times, and the latter, Yuval Zorn, even more than that -- including the last Rossini opera, the aforementioned Barber of Seville.
Not surprisingly, the relatively short opera translates into a minimal cast, with a supporting chorus and dance troupe that were also smaller than we are used to seeing. In all, there were only seven soloists -- four men and three women -- and just three lead singers.
The eponymous heroine of the title, Isabella, was sung by mezzo soprano Rachel Frenkel, a graduate of Tel Aviv’s Meitar Opera Studio who has gone on to perform in many of the leading opera houses and festivals of Europe. As the clever Italiana, she was appropriately coquettish and adroit, while often enchanting with her voice.
The lead male role of Lindoro was sung by tenor Alasdair Kent, the sole performer who was born outside of Israel, in Britain. He has performed once previously with the Israel Opera, and he again acquitted himself well.
Arguably, however, the star of the evening was Yair Polishook, who is a veteran of a great many Israel Opera productions in recent years. In the demanding role of Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers, he was frequently brilliantly comedic, combining the skill of an actor with the virtuosity of a rich baritone.
In the instances when there were duets, trios and even quartets, the artists excelled with their adeptness at singing particularly rapid-fire coloraturas -- a Rossini hallmark that never fails to delight fans of this prolific and lyrical composer. The marvelous music and acting -- combined with crackerjack staging that made the most of deliberately minimalistic scenic design -- all added up to a wonderfully entertaining evening at the opera.
This initial run of 2021 was extremely short, but we will soon get the chance again to return to the Israel Opera for Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues).
This new and original version of the classic story of the doomed lovers from Verona is scheduled for August 12-27.