The Turk in Italy,
G Rossini, libretto by Felice Romani after the libretto by Caterino Mazzola
Opera Australia, Wednesday January 22nd
If Rossini’s opera The Turk in Italy (Il Turco in Italia) were set in present times, the long sea voyage undertaken by Selim the Turk, eventually landing with his entourage on a beach in Naples , would surely have set the alarm bells ringing and had a less than happy ending. Thankfully Selim’s boat was not stopped and we have instead the core of a very entertaining opera.
Rossini’s 2-act Dramma buffo takes us back to more innocent times. This year, the opera celebrates the bi-centenary of its premiere at La Scala in Milan in 1814. It hasn’t been performed in Sydney for over 30 years. The character from whom it takes its title is inspired by the aesthetic of Orientalism, a result of the European fascination with the culture of the Middle East, fuelled by the increasing ease of travel and access to its arts.
Opera Australia’s 2014 production by Simon Phillips dispenses with the exotic, takes the tale back to its bare bones and re-invents it in the 1950s – an era in which the foreign is still fascinating, eliciting overpowering curiosity and attraction; women are still objectified, to be pampered, traded or adored; (in)fidelity and ageing, are as ever, universal themes. There is an abundance of visual humour – like the hapless men of the chorus grappling with their deck chairs and plenty of belly laughs, supported by impeccable timing both in music and acting. And for just a little while, the 1950 were left behind as we rocked into the 1970s.
The casting is superb, with characters and voices twinned to perfection. The cast meets the demands of bel canto singing, the constant movement and the physicality of their roles with energy to spare. Emma Matthews’ voice is ravishing in her role as the fickle Fiorilla, drawn like a moth to a flame by the eminently unsuitable and shiny suited Selim, played and sung brilliantly by the visiting Italian baritone and Rossini exponent Paulo Bordogna. Conal Coad’s portrayal of Don Geronio, the discarded husband, rolls humour, humiliation and anguish into one. His rendition of the Act 2 aria Oh, guardate che accidente in which he seeks the disguised Fiorilla as she cavorts with Selim, is as poignant as they come. Opera Australia Young Artist Anna Dowsley makes an impressive debut as the youthful and optimistic Zaida. Samuel Dundas as Prosdocimo, the poet without a plot takes on the role of barman, witness to the highs and lows, the wives and woes of his customers as they drown their sorrows at his high altar. Relegated to recitatives in most of this opera, Dundas’ fine delivery and timing support hilarious acting until we hear him in full voice in the Act 1 trio and in the ensembles in the finale of Act 1 finale where Rossini apparently noted to Prosdocimo on his autograph manuscript: ‘Well, at least you have a chance to do something here!’
Gabriela Tylesova’s costumes and sets are exquisite, in eye popping colour. Her centre-stage confection combines Neapolitan beach, village green, cafe and apartment in the one vista. She embraces the characters and draws them into them into caricatures with her judicious use of costumes, bling and an abundance of greasy coiffs.
Andrea Molino conducted a marvellous ensemble of orchestra and chorus augmented by the welcome sound of the fortepiano performed by Siro Battaglin.
Notwithstanding the many excellent elements of this production, perhaps the real star of the show is Rossini himself and the brilliance of his ensemble and bel canto writing.
Rossini’s music was sophisticated and his operas had tremendous popular appeal. This production has much to commend it as entertainment and as an art form. However, if there were to be a discussion about this production, the question I would ask (without giving too much away) is: are the classics too remote from our experience here in 21st century Sydney that we need to cross-pollinate them with pop culture in order to entertain and engage?
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
The Turk in Italy runs at the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House until February 12th, 2014.