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Aleksandra Kurzak as Fiorilla [Photo © ROH. Photographer: Tristram Kenton]
13 Apr 2015

Il turco in Italia, Royal Opera

This second revival of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s 2005 production of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia seems to have every going for it: excellent principals comprising experienced old-hands and exciting new voices, infinite gags and japes, and the visual éclat of Agostino Cavalca’s colour-bursting costumes and Christian Fenouillat’s sunny sets which evoke the style, glamour and ease of La Dolce Vita.

Gioacchino Rossini : Il turco in Italia, Royal Opera House, London, 11th April 2015

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Aleksandra Kurzak as Fiorilla

Photos © ROH. Photographer: Tristram Kenton


Add to that Romani’s profusion of mad-cap motion and Rossini’s tuneful, if largely indistinctive, musical fun and what’s not to like?

So, why did I find myself yawning rather than guffawing during this first night of the run? Things certainly unfolded efficiently enough, from Fenouillat’s sliding flats to Alessandro Corbelli’s wry patter. Yet, some of the paint’s brilliance has faded and Corbelli, while still the master buffo caricato, was not always focused of voice and at times seemed to be going through the theatrical motions. The ensemble was good and the farce fluent: three of the cast — Corbelli, Thomas Allen and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo have sung in every performance of this production, while Barry Banks was the original Don Narciso and Aleksandra Kurzak sang Fiorilli for the first revival in 2010, so one would expect the slapstick to be slick. Indeed, Don Geronio (Corbelli) and Selim (D’Arcangelo) conclude their tussle by trapping a waiter between two chairs with the grace and precision of Royal Ballet principals (Movement Director, Leah Hausman).

Conductor Evelino Pidò draw some charming playing from the ROH orchestra and created a good balance between stage and pit. There was strong singing too from the ROH chorus: the women were a sharp band of pick-pockets and the men looked glitzy in their blue wigs and ball-gowns. But, despite the incessant on-stage commotion, it all felt rather perfunctory and dramatically sluggish. There was plenty of laughter around me but, unfathomably, that seemed to be prompted by the unembellished surtitles rather than anything happening on stage.

Il Turco In Italia-ROH-2191 ALEKSANDRA KURZAK AS FIORILLA, ILDEBRANDO D’ARCANGELO AS SELIM, RACHEL KELLY AS ZAIDA © ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER TRISTRAM KENTON.pngAleksandra Kurzak as Fiorilla, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Selim, and Rachel Kelly as Zaida

The 1950s and 60s have been fertile decades of late for opera directors seeking a piquant period-update. And, it seems appropriate for Caurier and Leiser to recreate an era which saw a revival of interest in Il Turco, starting with Maria Callas’s 1950 performance in Rome at the Teatro Eliseo and the 1955 La Scala production of the opera, which had been absent from that house’s stage for 130 years.

The directors give us every cliché in the book, from Narciso’s greased Elvis-quiff to a superfluity of vintage vehicles: one scene assembles a taxi, a Fiat 500 and a Vespa. This is a simple, carefree world where everyone is rich and happy, and the sun always shines. No wonder that the arrival of a Turk — atop the prow of his luxury yacht — creates such excitement amongst these urbane Italians. If one were tempted to detect a touch of xenophobia in Romani’s libretto, Caurier and Leiser certainly don’t cast even the slightest glance in the direction of UKIP.

It’s probably not the directors’ fault if things feel rather insubstantial — the text and score are frivolous froth. But, during the evening’s longeurs — particularly in Act 2 — I found myself musing on tangential matters. Last year, an exhibition at the Estorick Collection in London presented photographs of the era of Italy’s ‘economic miracle’; of Brigitte Bardot indolently sipping champagne, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor idling on the deck of their yacht. But, Fellini’s film, which is repeatedly referenced in the programme, was not a celebration of a hedonistic golden age, rather a critique of it: the title is highly ironic. And, the parallels with post-Berlusconi Italy are not particularly heartening. Those living in the Roma camps of southern Italy face bitter discrimination; a few years ago, the Guardian reported that photographs had emerged of a beach in Naples where two young Roma gypsy girls had drowned, while just feet away from them a carefree couple enjoy a leisurely picnic.

If I’m straying from the point, it’s because I spent much of the evening struggling to find the ‘point’ of this production; but this was undoubtedly futile, for there isn’t one … and, indeed, why should there be more to Rossini’s opera than harmless fun under an azure sky? Those around me evidently enjoyed themselves.

Il Turco In Italia-ROH-4317 BARRY BANKS AS DON NARCISO, THOMAS ALLEN AS PROSDOCIMO, RACHEL KELLY AS ZAIDA © ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER TRISTRAM KENTON.pngBarry Banks as Don Narciso, Thomas Allen as Prosdocimo, and Rachel Kelly as Zaida

One of Rossini’s earliest comic farces, Il Turco in Italia was first performed in 1814 at La Scala. The score is busy and bustling, but largely unmemorable; Rossini makes little attempt to use his music to characterise and it often feels oddly disconnected from the text. But, then, the ‘text’ is ‘made up’ as it goes along … for the Poet, Prosdocimo, struggling in the mires of writer’s block, has arrived at a gypsy encampment hoping to find inspiration for his new opera libretto among the everyday happenings of the common folk. As so, our opera unfolds before us … except that the common folk prove more unpredictable that the Poet anticipated and re-write the scenes that he has penned for them. The result is an intrigue that would be a serious contender for the ‘most confusing plot in opera’ prize.

But, here goes … we are in Naples. A Turkish prince, Pasha Selim, wanders into a beach-side gypsy camping ground, irritated because his favourite amour has escaped from the harem and confused because he finds that on this foreign soil he cannot simply buy himself another wife if he wants one. But, things soon look up: Fiorilla — the flighty, flirtatious wife of put-upon Don Geronio — is happy to take Selim's mind off his troubles … if she can squeeze him in between assignations with her lover Narciso. Prosdocimo is relieved to find the elusive plot for his new opera buffa among these tangles of romantic philandering and marital suffering. The action occasionally veers in tragic directions, but the Poet successfully engineers a happy ending. At the close repentance is sworn, forgiveness is dispensed, and the various couples are reunited, leaving a lonesome Narciso to nurse his wounded pride and heart.

As the abused Geronio, Corbelli once again showed us how buffo should blend buffoonery and pathos, whether tangling with the fronds of a palm tree or fighting strands of spaghetti. This was a theatrical masterclass even if at times Corbelli’s singing was rather unfocussed, particularly in the more florid passages. The influence of Così fan tutte on Rossini’s opera can be strongly felt (Mozart’s opera had been staged at La Scala shortly before Il Turco was premiered) and as the stylishly white-suited Prosdocimo, Thomas Allen essentially reprised his inimitable Don Alfonso, confidently manipulating the action with suavity and wit. There isn’t much of a voice left, but Allen can still effortlessly command the stage.

Barry Banks, attired in garish yellow denim and sporting an unattractive beard, sounded a bit strained in Narciso’s show-piece aria but established a good rapport with Corbelli, the two rivals brought together by Fiorilla’s perfidies. Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzakreturned to the role of Fiorilla and perted, pouted and strutted with aplomb. She showed vocal athleticism, although some of the coloratura was ragged at the top, and I didn’t always find her tone attractive — it was rather too ‘edgy’ when in the stratosphere and Kurzak didn’t capture the vulnerability with should show through Fiorilla’s narcissism in her soul-searching aria of repentance, ‘Squallida veste, e bruna d’affanno e pentimento’, as she reflects on her love for the three men and her anguish at being torn between them. There was more warmth, however, in her final reconciliation duet with Geronio.

There were no doubts about Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, though; he was as sumptuous of voice as he was alluring of appearance. His bass was velvety and dark, wonderfully conveying the exoticism of the strange and foreign. D’Arcangelo’s virtuosic arias were technically precise but also full of colour and character, and his duets with Corbelli and Fiorilla were the highlights of the evening.

Two Jette Parker Young Artists were given their chance to shine. As Zaida, Irish mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly impressed, competing feistily with Fiorilla for Selim’s attention and affection. When I heard Kelly last year, in the role of Mirinda in the ROH’s production of L’Ormindo at the Globe Theatre, I remarked the ‘rich sensuality’ of her voice, and this glowing warmth was much in evidence again. Portuguese tenor Luis Gomes had little to do as Albazar but acquitted himself well.

This was a good ensemble performance. If you like a dash of Pirandello spiced with Goldoni, then you’ll enjoy.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Fiorilla — Aleksandra Kurzak, Selim — Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, Don Geronio — Alessandro Corbelli, Don Narciso — Barry Banks, Prosdocimo — Thomas Allen, Zaida — Rachel Kelly, Albazar — Luis Gomes; Conductor — Evelino Pidó, Directors — Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, Associate Director — Richard Gerard Jones, Set Designs — Christian Fenouillat, Costume Designs — Agostino Cavalca, Lighting Design — Christophe Forey, Movement Director — Leah Hausman, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Saturday 11th April 2015.

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