Oh, the flaring nostrils! Oh, the quivering lips! Oh, the suave arch of a spit-slicked alpha-male eyebrow in glorious, sweat-beaded close-up! Played and filmed live in a "green screen" television studio, with computer-generated backdrops mixed in on the video screen above, Colin McColl's exuberant New Zealand Opera/Scottish Opera co-production of The Italian Girl in Algiers plays tribute to that much-maligned medium, the bad soap opera.
On stage, we see the neuroses, rivalries and boredom of the cast and crew of "Algiers", a Mediterranean telenovela. On screen, we see Rossini's tale of an Italian vamp kidnapped by a Turkish potentate, a yacht in the worst possible taste, toe-curling title sequences, beach babes on Space Hoppers, and a duet sung on water-skis. McColl's mise en scène may be hard to follow – recitatives are performed out of character, as though in rehearsal – but this is a carnival of hair-tossing, eye-rolling bad taste with a soundtrack of bittersweet delicacy.
At the heart of the production is Karen Cargill, a curvacious comedienne with a dark, sparkling voice and delicious coloratura. Cargill's Isabella is adorable from the histrionic "Cruda sorte" to the sultry cantilena and the screwball ensembles. As Lindoro, Thomas Walker sends up the image of a leading man, preening for the camera in "Languir per una bella" over a gaudy backdrop of a revolving rosebud. Draped with bikini-clad blondes, butter-toned bass Tiziano Bracci plays Mustafa as a libidinous dope, while Adrian Powter and Mary O'Sullivan are the baffled and dejected Taddeo and Elvira. Detailed work from actors Harry Ward and Paul Aitken as the hyperactive Assistant Director and Script Assistant ensure the pace never flags. I could have done without the R&B dance from Mustafa's eunuchs. But with multimedia sight-gags, generous ensemble work, Wyn Davies's taut, witty conducting and the sudden plangency of Rossini's melancholy solos for horn, oboe and flute, this Italian Girl in Algiers is irresistible.
Touring five Handel operas to six cities may seem like madness but there's a healthy seam of pragmatism in English Touring Opera's Handelfest. Thriftily designed by Michael Vale (Tolomeo and Ariodante), Adam Wiltshire (Teseo) and Joanna Parker (Alcina and Flavio) in alluring shades of bronze and azure, all but one of James Conway's highly disciplined productions has been on the road before. Now, with an ensemble of singers in which every one takes a role in two operas and understudies a third, and a period-instrument orchestra stocked with five leaders, ETO is presenting the culmination of a project that began in 2003.
A double romance played out against diplomatic intrigue in the court of the King of Lombardy, Flavio is the new kid on ETO's block. Flirtatious Teodata (Carolyn Dobbin) has already given Vitige (Angelica Voje) "that which only a wife should give" when she catches the royal eye of Flavio (Clint Van Der Linde). Her brother, Guido (James Laing), is betrothed to Emilia (Paula Sides), but the engagement ends when Guido's father, Ugone (Joseph Cornwell) is appointed Ambassador to England over the head of Lotario (Andrew Slater), Emilia's father.
Eighteenth-century costumes soften the severity of Parker's deep blue set, while Conway highlights the burden of social conventions, making the courtiers scrape, bow, throw baroque poses and consult an etiquette book. There is a happy ending, albeit over Lotario's dead body. Meanwhile, the arias and duets unfold, their variety and beauty dazzling. I hope it isn't unkind to say that Jonathan Peter Kenny conducts like a singer. He is one. And if some of the orchestral entries were untidy, his sensitivity to the cast will have been appreciated on stage.
If the Eurostar seems unusually busy at the moment, blame Les Arts Florissants. Founded by William Christie in 1979, the group is celebrating its 30th anniversary in a Barbican season that includes Handel's Susannah (tonight). Last weekend saw Jonathan Cohen guest-directing a Viennese taster menu. Blasted out of their seats by baleful brass and a pumped-up pair of double-basses, the violins sounded more like fairies than Gluck's furies. LSO St Luke's does not favour the pale, and flautist Charles Zebley's Dance of the Blessed Spirits was heard as though through an opiate haze.
I'm not convinced that Les Arts Flo are Les Arts Flo without Christie, or that Classical repertoire suits them. Still, the snook-cocking contrasts between the elevated aesthetics of Sturm und Drang and the low-brow rhythms of the ländler in Haydn's Symphony in D minor (No 80) were vividly drawn, as was the accompaniment to Laura Claycomb's elegant "Padre, germani, addio!". But the most stylish, authoritative and characterful performance came from fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout in Mozart's B flat major Concerto (K456), with a rich variety of touch and unerring rhythmic confidence.
'Italian Girl in Algiers', Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0844 871 7647) to 31 Oct, then touring; Handelfest, Malvern Theatres (01684 892 277) from 27 Oct, then touringReuse content