The Turk in Italy (Il Turco in Italia): Opera Review

A welcome L.A. debut for the 197-year-old Rossini opera.

LA Opera's debut of the 197-year-old Gioacchino Rossini romantic comedy is an amusing and flavorful local introduction, writes Todd McCarthy.

Sparkling if not scintillating, the production of Il Turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy), which opened Saturday night at the LA Opera, will mark a welcome introduction to Gioacchino Rossini's seldom staged comedy of romantic intrigue for most of the local audience. Dynamically sung in particular by Nino Machaidze and Paolo Gavanelli and beautifully designed, this import from the Hamburg State Opera may not fully realize the dramma buffo's potential for boisterous character humor, but is amusing and flavorful enough to confirm the work as a worthy predecessor to the composer's The Barber of Seville, which followed less than two years later.

Il Turco, which was Rossini's 13th opera, written when he was 22, was roundly dismissed at its premiere at La Scala in 1814. Rossini biographer Stendhal was probably right in attributing Milanese scorn to the text's perceived insult to Italians, as the husband is cuckolded by a Turkish interloper. In any event, the serious-minded sex farce, which owes more than a small debt to Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, beginning with its Naples setting, essentially vanished from the repertoire of international opera houses between 1850 and 1950, when Maria Callas put it back on the map. Still, it has remained relatively obscure, never having been put on at the Met or in Los Angeles before, so most observers will be beholding it with fresh eyes.

Bringing the action up to the modern day, or something very close to it, original director Christof Loy and Axel Weidauer, who restaged it here, successfully set the comic tone at the outset when, as in a reverse of the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera, the full chorus comes piling out of a small car trailer carrying folding chairs. Among the many gypsies taking up residence on the beach is the beautiful Zaida, a refugee from a failed romance with her Turkish master, the prince Salim.

Soon showing up to have his fortune told is the plump and mature Don Geronio, who's rightly afraid his bombshell wife Fiorilla is cheating on him. For the moment, the object of her attention is dreamy young Narciso, but no sooner does Salim turn up, anxious to sample the sensual wonders of Italy, than he and Fiorilla become inseparable and insatiable.

Rossini and librettist Felice Romani enriched the piece's comic possibilities by including the pre-Pirandellian figure of a poet-playwright who observes, and often stimulates, the characters' interactions to gain material for a play ("A cuckolded husband. A capricious wife. There is nothing better!," the writer enthuses). With three men fighting for the favors of one woman and two women jealous for the attentions of one man ("tabby vs. tart," as the translation charmingly puts it), passions are so inflamed that the characters can't even stop flailing at each other even after the music stops at the end of act one.

After the obligatory masked ball and succession of disguised identities in act two, almost all is harmoniously resolved in traditional, ultra-Mozartian fashion. But getting there is a bit of a haul; the comic momentum is repeatedly thrwarted by a succession of recitatives that is ultimately redeemed by Fiorilla's climactic aria that Machaidze knocks out of the park.

While all the principals are absolutely solid, it becomes clear that two of them are working on a level rather higher than that. Fiorilla is an earthy southern Italian man-eater one might picture resembling Loren, Cardinale or Bellucci. Especially when poured into a succession of tight red outfits, Machaidze, the Georgian sensation who made her LA Opera debut last season in L'Elisir d'Amore, has no trouble following in this line of carnal beauties as she wraps herself around Salim and spurns her silly old husband, who is marvelously played and sung with booming old world gusto by Italian baritone Gavanelli, making his company debut.

The demands on veteran baritone Thomas Allen in the role of Prosdocimo the poet are more comic than vocal and he meets them skillfully. In the title role, bass-baritone Simone Alberghini strides about with the appropriate air of entitlement, but an added layer of buffoonish self-importance might have provided the comedic piece that seems missing from the production as a whole. Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey and tenor Maxim Mironov, both in their company debuts, are easy on the eyes and ears as Zaida and Narciso, respectively.

Conductor James Conlon, who has noted that the only time he ever saw Il Turco in Italia was when he worked as a student volunteer on a New York production in 1964, led the spirited orchestra. The beautifully colored scenery and costume design by Herbert Maurauer, modernist without being mannered, is a pleasure to behold throughout.

Venue: LA Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavlion (through March 13)
Cast: Simone Alberghini, Nino Machaidze, Thomas Allen, Paolo Gavanelli, Maxim Mironov, Kate Lindsey, Matthew O'Neill
Music: Gioachino Rossini
Text: Felice Romani, based on an earlier libretto by Caterino Mazzola
Conductor: James Conlon
Original Production: Christof Loy
Director: Axel Weidauer
Scenery and Costume Designer: Herbert Maurauer
Lighting Designer: Reinhard Traub

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