Review Of The Opera The Turk In Italy By Gioachino Rossini

After three despondent operas in Sydney’s cold winter – a conventional Lucia Di Lammermoor, a solemn Rigoletto and a dazzlingly dark Aida – a breath of fresh air is brought into the Sydney Opera house with an unusual rendition of Gioachino Rossini’s least remembered operas. The Turk in Italy is not performed often for a variety of reasons. From the time it was written it has been considered wildly flirtatious and extravagant compared to the many other conservative operas that were being composed and performed at the time.

Rossini was a very young composer, and started to write and compose operas at only the age of eighteen. He brought a young perspective to a quite antiquated era of music and his fresh ideas and contrasting themes created great discussion of his works, and intrigued a variety of audiences across time. In 1813, Rossini composed The Italian Girl in Algiers, which turned out to be a roaring success. So much so that in the following year at the age of twenty-one, he composed a sequel, The Turks in Italy (1814), to continue the drama and music that he had loved so much in the previous work. The premise of the works are very similar, which caused a lot of conflict for Rossini, who often plagiarized his own work. Both operas include a pair of cavorted lovers, a clash of cultures and the drama and chaotic outcome that ensues. Because of the operas being so similar, The Turk in Italy was not as successful as Rossini’s previous opera had been. The opera-going public felt a little cheated in the similarities of both productions.

One would argue that the plot of The Turks in Italy is just an inversion of The Italian Girl in Algiers and it is because of this that The Turk in Italy is so easily forgotten. However, it was revived in the 1950’s by Maria Callas, it is still not performed often but it is full of stunning melodies and complex ensemble work and when performed correctly can be a remarkably funny and entertaining opera. The 2018 production of The Turk in Italy directed by Simon Phillips is a colourful frolic of mistaken identity, slapstick humour and brazen innuendo. Set in a seaside town near Naples in the 1950s, the set and costume designer Gabriela Tylesova plays with 1950s colour schemes of bright pops of colour against shimmering green grass in a Dr. Seussesque quirkiness, the set is bursting with retro colour and charm which is continued in set design with a revolving cafe as its feature point. It’s all sunny days, sandy shores and short lived romances under the roof of the Joan Sutherland Theatre.

The ultimate cherry on top of this gelato-covered treat is Simon Phillip’s translation of Felice Romani’s libretto. Romani’s already ticklish script has been given a decidedly Aussie update. The translation gives the work a very different approach to any piece of opera performed before. Phillips swaps the libretto for surtitles, serving up a dish of Aussie flavours with phrases from the vernacular such as “boofhead”, “root rat” and “nong”. Full of slang, idioms, Australian colloquialisms and a heap of swear words the translation leaves the audience in bounds of laughter, contemplating how something so beautiful as an opera could be translated into something so wild and feverish. “Anywhere he can fit in a gag there is a gag, ” says Alleaume, “We’ve been in fits of laughter through the rehearsal process. ”

The Turks in Italy is presented clean and sharp, making the audience roll in their seats with its carefully choreographed pratfalls and hilariously okker libretto translations. It starts with the introduction of Prosdocimo, a self aware poet slogging it out as a barman, pieces together the plot for his play inspired by the marital problems of grumpy Geronio and his bored younger wife Fiorilla (any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental, the poet reassures us). The foreigner Selim, steps foot on shore, sets his eyes of Fiorilla and is immediately smitten. However, gypsy Zaida who happens to be the ex-lover of Selim, is also in town. Shenanigans ensue, the women fight over the sleazy and supposedly irresistible Selim (which is frankly puzzling) and the whole shebang is resolved with a rather sudden denouement. As a product of its time, the story draws on tired gender stereotypes and the outdated trope of women fawning over incompetent men who don’t particularly treat them very well. The characters appear consciously superficial and anachronistic in 2018. Geronio laments that it is “impossible to find a woman not riddled with flaws” and though in jest, the insults “Turkish terrorist! damn doner kebab!” don’t sit as being all that clever or funny. Nevertheless, the production is propelled by the energetic performances of the cast and the playful score under the baton of Andrea Molino.

Rising Australian soprano Stacey Alleaume, who dazzled audiences in The Merry Widow, earlier this year, makes her debut role as Fiorilla, her first leading lady role in a main-stage production. An emerging star who started her career in Opera Australia’s schools and National Touring productions before being accepted into the OA Young Artist’s Program, Stacey has been championed by Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini, who sees a very bright future ahead of the young soprano. Four years ago Stacey performed in the same production as a chorus member, and this year she took flight as a leading lady, “I’m so excited”, says Alleaume, “To jump up and be in the leading lady role is incredible. It really highlights my journey over the last four years and how far I’ve come. ” Stacey presents herself in a fun and flirty manner from the get-go, fully encapsulating the character of Fiorilla with her brightness in tone and playful performance. She leaves the audience in states of laughter with her faces and innuendos in movements and comical breathing between notes and phrases. Her runs unfortunately lack crispness, but she makes up for it in the quality and tone of her work. “Vocally, this is quite challenge, ” says Alleaume, “It’s my first coloratura role, and she sings really high. Up in the stratosphere a lot of the time. ” Although Alleaume claims the role to be difficult, she presented it with ease, with a beautiful resonance on her high notes, leaving the room speechless and longing for more. Her climbs seem effortless and spectacular as she seduces the Turk (and the audience) gracefully and effortlessly. Her vocals are clean and powerful with creative coloratura, secure even in the sections most difficult to perform. Alleaume seems to relish the chance to be the incorrigible coquette and is quite the actress, leaving every woman in the audience saying, “I’ll have what she’s having. ”

Helpmann award winning baritone Warwick Fyfe is adorably, laughably pitiable, bumbling around in his fatsuit as Geronio. The pace, power and clear articulation of his patter singing is impressive, especially in the middle of active battle. Bass-baritone Paolo Bordogna is an appropriate choice as the swarthy, oily Selim. Unusually to Australian productions, only the titular Turk (Selim) has been imported from a near-all-Aussie cast, and it’s a wise welcome choice. Paolo Bordogna has been called the funniest man in Italian opera and I’m not about to argue. His brassy baritone instrument is world-class, but it’s that rubbery face and spritely physicality that makes this performance such a treat. Both lead males are genuinely hilarious. Baritone Samuel Dundas as the poet Prosdocimo sings with aplomb. Mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley is a bit shy compared to some of the other performers, although this does suit her character of the underappreciated Zaida. Her vocals are refined and pristine.

However, when you consider that Rossini’s operas were the pop music of the day back in the early 1800s, we really must measure them against the standards of today’s music videos, which basically follow the recipe of “add sex and stir”. This opera, wholly centred on open extramarital affairs, was originally criticised and censured for “challenging healthy moral precepts. ” I would venture to say that to this day, in Philips’ updated production, it continues to raise an eyebrow, at the least.

Having said all that, Rossini’s score is melodic, reminiscent of Mozart, and most definitely serious, sophisticated art. It is precisely the contrast between what we hear and what we see that makes this production funny. This may be the only time you will see Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe singing opera. It’s certainly the first time I’ve heard opera coming out of a jukebox.

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