First staged in 1814, the work has rarely been seen in Australia in full production and is often regarded as inferior to or at least derivative of its predecessor, Rossini’s “The Italian Girl in Algiers.”
With a cast of extroverts, not least the chorus of Opera Australia, which seemed eager to jump into 1950s bathing suits, a quirky set of surtitles by Simon Phillips and some dazzling stars, “The Turk in Italy” has been well calculated to fill the summer calendar.
Small matter that the idea of the young Turkish nobleman landing on Italian shores and almost immediately running into his former lover even as he courts the flirtatious wife of the local bar owner, makes for a thin plot—it helps to know that operas about Turks were exceedingly fashionable in the early 19th century.
Director Phillips uses every sight gag and physical theatre joke in the book to ensure that the laughs come thick and fast.
Designer Gabriela Tylesova aids and abets him with a lollipop coloured set and a seemingly endless range of stylish costumes, especially for Emma Matthews as the flighty wife Fiorilla. In one scene the male principals in the entire chorus are decked out in identical Elvis costumes.
Italian tenor Paolo Bordogna swaggers and poses as the handsome, self-important young Turk, Selim. Anna Dowsley as his “sex slave” Zaida is more toned-down than her fellow performers, but in her singing offers some rare moments of tenderness.
Samuel Dundas is versatile in his role as “the Poet,” Prosdocimo, who purports to be a playwright in search the comic plot. This adds an almost post-modern twist as he reflects directly to us on the farcical onstage proceedings. Inevitably his “play” looks like something from the Italian commedia dell’arte, with a ridiculous old husband Geronio, a faithless wife Fiorilla and an over-the-top the lover, Narciso (Luciano Botelho).It is rare for the surtitles to shine as a player in the action, but so it is in this production, with Phillips ranging from vernacular Ockerisms (“bugger off”) to 1950s hip talk in his translations of Felice Romani’s libretto.
This is quite a long evening in the Opera House, but one sustained by splendid singing, notably the dramatic quintet in the final act.
I’ve left the best for last. Conal Coad as Geronio and Emma Matthews as his fickle wife Fiorilla hold the centre of the stage throughout the evening. Whether bickering or making up, their vocal splendour is equalled by their fine voices. You could argue that Matthews takes the limelight in her insincere repentance aria towards the end of the Opera, but it is Coad as the long-suffering husband who makes us laugh, shows he is no fool and ultimately tugs at the heartstrings.