Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Turk in Italy Comes to Town in an Airstream Trailer

Review by Rodney Punt

If you have not yet seen The Turk in Italy at LA Opera, here’s what you need to do: Drop everything and buy a ticket before they are sold out. Then call your cousin in Milwaukee and tell her to book the next flight out to L.A. so she can join you.

Honestly, it’s that good.

Gioacchino Rossini’s opera arrived in Los Angeles last Saturday for only the second time since its La Scala premiere 197 years ago. (A NYCO production also at the Chandler Pavilion in 1978 featured Beverly Sills, and the nearby Long Beach Opera produced it in that city in 1995.) It comes via the Bavarian State Opera from a 2005 production that originated in Hamburg. LA Opera may be curating more than producing these days, but it has a knack for choosing winners.

Turk (Il Turco in Italia) is homage to Mozart, a comic cocktail that mixes two parts Così fan tutte with a twist of Abduction from the Seraglio. Under masterful direction and with a dream-cast of veterans and newcomers, it is a once in a lifetime production of dazzling invention and dizzying non-stop action. It is also one of Rossini’s more subtle scores, emphasizing ensembles and interaction over arias, though its few moments of quiet musical contemplation are much to be savored.

Felice Romani’s libretto for the 1814 opera (borrowed from an earlier work) followed the wildly popular L’Italiana in Algeri by one year. In this farce about the love-games people play, Italian glam-girl Fiorilla, wife of doting middle-aged Don Geronio, has a wandering eye for exotically handsome Selim, a Turkish prince on the outs with his lover, the slave Zaida, who, with fellow fugitive Albazar, has encamped in Italy with a wandering band of gypsies. Narciso, meanwhile, pines for his former lover Fiorilla. A series of attempted liaisons, attendant histrionics, and a masked ball with mistaken similar identities (third photo below) leads to some genuinely poignant soul-searching about the true nature of marital happiness.

Spicing up the drollery (this is where the opera pivots into comic genius), the poet Prosdocimo, observing all, uses this tawdry reality show to shake his writer’s block and shape an opera libretto, becoming unwittingly entangled in everyone else's troubles.

Making their debuts at LA Opera, Christof Loy, the original production and stage director at Hamburg, and Axel Weidauer, directing L.A.'s revival (with Herbert Murauer’s sets and costumes and Reinhard Traub’s lighting) have updated the Neapolitan setting to a mid-twentieth century La Dolce Vita Italy, where frivolity reigns and anything goes in social mores.

Prosdocimo's search for an opera plot is used as a conceptual premise to spoof all opera conventions, particularly those of contemporary directors. If Peter Sellars can stage Così fan tutte in a contemporary diner, this Turk will update the action to an Airstream camp-trailer, out of which a score of gypsies file as if from a Mack Sennett two-realer. In equal opportunity roasting, Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach is mocked with scenes punctuated by glacially moving cast members in bathing suits. Further emphasizing the self-conscious mockery, chorus members playact as stage technicians, sporting black teeshirts emblazoned with "LA Opera" logos.

Did I say the production had a dream cast?

Simone Alberghini’s dark baritone and his exotic swarthy suaveness lend commanding authority to the title character of Prince Selim (top left), whose somewhat shadowy background makes him all the more attractive to the ladies. His allure isn't hurt any by his arriving on an airborne Turkish carpet behind a scrim painted as the Naples harbor.

Nino Machaidze’s Donna Fiorilla (top right), with superficial appetites that include an Imelda Marcos-sized shoe collection, is spurred on by her illicit attraction but regrets it later in a final aria recanting her capriciousness. Delivering a stunning display of bel canto lyricism in that aria, Machaidze garnered the largest applause of the evening on opening night.

Paolo Gavanelli, as the much put upon Geronio (above center), proves again that, in addition to being a Verdi specialist, he is also one of the world’s great buffo baritones, delivering a spectacular display of parlando (Italian patter). With twice as many resonant words streaming out of his mouth as anyone else on stage, he is the work’s desperate center of gravity, in all senses of the word, and a man who must reclaim his wife and his honor in the face of humiliating cuckoldry.

Young mezzo Kate Lindsey’s lovely, lithe Zaida (right) more than holds her own vocally and dramatically as the lover whose passion and constancy win out in the end. Possessing a dancer’s grace, she needs no stunt double for her many lifts and thrusts. (She is also suited for lyric trouser roles, and her Nicklausse last summer at Santa Fe was the single redeeming element in their muddled Tales of Hoffmann.)

Tenor Matthew O’Neill’s Albazar is sympathetic as Zaida’s helper. Tenor Maxim Mironov’s Don Narciso (below right) is as effective in florid vocal outpourings as his Don Ottavio-like character is ineffective as the spurned lover pursuing an unresponsive Fiorilla.

Veteran baritone Thomas Allen brilliantly gauges the hapless Prosdocimo. Plagued with encounters too close for comfort -- props, characters, even walls seeming to jump into his path -- he ends up in a surgeon’s nightmare of bandages and crutches worthy of Naked Gun's Officer Nordberg.

He may have gotten his opera story, but the cost to Prosdocimo in this production has been steep. (above right, below left)

In the end, capricious Fiorilla, faced with the loss of her husband, comes to her senses, just as proud Selim realizes that all along his true love had been his faithful Zaida. While the others have reconciled themselves to their individual fates, our final view of the two couples, as Loy and Weidauer have it, is in side-by-side households, dealing with the the usual domestic stresses and strains but as assuredly married as any two couples in modern suburbia. (photo below)

Under James Conlon's sensitive and idiomatic leadership, and after some rough moments in the overture on opening night, the orchestra sparkled as it kept the action moving, sprinkling Rossinian pixy dust over the assembled and deftly changing gears from the frivolity later on for a few tender moments.

Original audiences thought Turk a lukewarm knock-off of the Italiana of the year before, rejecting it without realizing the new musical and dramatic paths the composer was exploring. While Italiana hewed to convention by producing a laugh-fest of comedic plot entanglements, catchy melodies, and high-flying solos, Turk goes a step further by integrating music into the action with its sophisticated ensembles and short cavatinas. Its serious moments are all the more effective by arriving so unexpectedly. Think of Turk's following Italiana as you would Mark Twain's following his fine Tom Sawyer with the even greater Huckleberry Finn.

Profoundly simple insights, it would seem, are sometimes found in the most superficial of packages -- and scintillating of scores.

The Turk in Italy opened February 19 and continues on February 27 and March 2, 5, 10, 13 at various times. See Los Angeles Opera.

Photos by Robert Millard and courtesy of LA Opera. Above from left: 1) Simone Alberghini and Nino Machaidze, 2) Paolo Gavanelli and cast, 3) Kate Lindsey and Thomas Allen, 4) Alberghini, Lindsey, Machaidze, Maxim Mironov, 5) various

Rodney Punt may be contacted at [email protected]

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