Review / Frothy Rossini returns to favour

Opera / “The Turk in Italy” by Rossini, libretto by Romani after Mazzola, directed by Simon Phillips, conducted by Andrea Molina, for Opera Australia. At Sydney Opera House, until September 1. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA

The Opera Australia chorus. Photo by Keith Saunders

“THE Turk in Italy” – “Il Turco” – is one of the lightest and frothiest of Rossini operas.

Not much admired in its day because of its closeness in subject to his earlier “The Italian Girl in Algiers”, in the hands of Simon Phillips, who first staged this version for Opera Australia in 2014, this work now hits the spot.

Comparisons between “Il Turco” and Mozart are not idle, especially when the Act I trio, “Un marito scimunito” (a deceived husband) includes a quotation from “Cosi Fan Tutte”, another opera that ventures into the subject of infidelity, considered exceedingly immoral in both composers’ times.

Samuel Dundas as the poet. Photo by Keith Saunders

But Rossini and his librettist at least covered their backs in inventing a narrator, the poet Prosdosimo, who manipulates  the plot as he purports to craft the perfect stage farce – in other words, this is presented as theatre, not real life.

Prosdosimo, played and sung expertly by OA regular Samuel Dundas, sets up from the outset a relationship between the audience and the poet/barman, who in a series of asides, debates the merits of his plot, experiments with twists and turns and decides not to follow Latin critic Horace’s are dictum to have five acts – “these days audiences will never put up with it,” he explains.

Dundas also proves adept with a cocktail shaker and other instruments of comic horseplay.

The opera is unusual in its dearth of conventional arias, although the passionate coloratura outburst in Act II, “Squallida veste e bruna”, from the faithless wife Fiorilla is a notable exception. Here soprano Stacey Alleaume, who also played a straying wife in OA’s “Merry Widow” last year, owns the centre stage, charmingly sexy and largely unrepentant. She was rewarded with enthusiastic applause for her brilliant rendition of this aria.

As her aging husband Geronio (the very name means old man), baritone Warwick Fyfe, one of the true stars of Opera Australia, also dominates. While looking ridiculous throughout, he manages to invest his bumbling character with a rare degree of horse sense, no mean feat in this ridiculous plot. Fyfe’s articulate and rapid-fire performance of Rossini‘s patter – eat your heart out Gilbert and Sullivan – was a joy to the ear and eye.

These are dazzling operatic performances, against which the others by Italian bass-baritone Paolo Bordogna as Selim the Turk, mezzo-soprano Anna Dowlsey, as his “sex slave” Zaida (in Phillips’ translation) and tenor Virgilio Marino as a Neapolitan lothario seem tame.

Stacey Alleaume as Fiorilla, photo Keith Saunders

Director Phillips personally adapted the libretto into one of the more amazing and colourfully Australian translations ever seen on the screen in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. “Chicky-babe,” sings Selim when he sees the voluptuous Fiorilla.

The 1950s bathing costumes by Gabriela Tylesova are donned with gusto by the ever-brilliant chorus of OA, but perhaps the costuming highlight comes in Philips’s brilliant solution to the masked party scene, where at least three of the characters don the same disguise. But Phillips and Tylesova have everybody, including the chorus, turn up in dark glasses, dressed as Elvis in Las Vegas attire and Marilyn in her famous white dress, thus creating mayhem and confusion.

Tylesova’s revolving set, Geronio’s house and cocktail bar by the beach, offers scope for ridiculous horseplay in commedia dell’arte tradition.

In short, this revival of Simon Phillips’ production confirms its place as one of OA’s most amusing and effective contemporary productions.

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