Fiorilla (Nino Machaidze) in The Turk in Italy. Photo by Robert Millard.
By Ed Rampell
L.A. Opera’s The Turk in Italy is sort of Gioachino Rossini meets the Marx Brothers and Elvis’ 1965 movie Harum Scarum, a delightfully frothy comic concoction combining madcap merriment, mayhem and music. One half expects Chico to unmask himself during the second act’s costumed ball and ask, “Why a Turk?” Soon after the curtain lifts the amused audience witnesses one of the oldest circus clown routine, which your plot spoiler adverse reviewer won’t reveal. This comedy of ill manners is about – what else? – sex, and has more dosey doe partner changing than square dances or Woody Allen movies.
Indeed, in this opera buffo there’s not just a threesome, but a ménage a quatre (and then some), as Selim (Italian bass-baritone Simone Alberghini as the titular Turk), accompanied by a bodyguard who resembles the Green Hornet (but don’t worry, Seth Rogen isn’t making his opera debut here), arrives in Naples and woos Donna Fiorilla (sizzling soprano Nino Machaidze). This young beauty, however, is already cheating on her much older, wealthy husband, Don Geronio (Italian baritone Paolo Gavanelli, who hilariously steals scenes with the merry mania of a comic kleptomaniac), with the youthful, aptly named Don Narciso (portrayed by Russian tenor Maxim Mironov as a kind of Neapolitan Fonzie). Further complicating moral matters is the reunion of Selim with his former slave and lover, the fortuneteller Zaida (sultry mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey).
Plotwise it would be enough to write that “complications and sheer hilarity ensue,” except for the addition -- and interjection -- of a sixth major character, the prosaic Prosdocimo (baritone Thomas Allen), a writer, who humorously gives new meaning to the cliché of “the artist suffering for his art.” Although identified as a “Poet,” Prosdocimo is actually seeking subject matter for a new comic opera or comedy, and more precisely seems to be a librettist or playwright. In any case, Prosdocimo appears to be the alter ego (or doppelganger) of Rossini (and/or of Felice Romani, who wrote The Turk in Italy's libretto and, according to Performances Magazine, apparently plagiarized librettist Caterino Mazzola). In any case, Prosdocimo is not merely content to observe and then write about what he has experienced amidst the carousers. The not-so-humble scribe stirs the plot pot in a self-serving way, solely to get a better story.
The Turk in Italy premiered in 1814 at Milan’s renowned La Scala, yet this zany sex farce is redolent with meaning for contemporary audiences. The curtain rises on an encampment of people identified as “Gypsies,” and my concern over the stereotyping of the much maligned Roma as vagabond thieves, etc., dissipated shortly afterward, as they vanish from the stage and story, serving mainly to introduce Zaida, a Turkish astrologer.
As its title indicates, Rossini’s opera suggests something much in the news since 9/11: The so-called “clash of civilizations” (and their malcontents) between the Christian West and Muslim Middle East. Of course, this is all treated with jest by Rossini, that barber of civility. When Selim informs Don Geronio that men seeking another’s wife have a way of dealing with this in Turkey -- by buying said wife, as if she’s a mere commodity -- Geronio responds to this oddity by informing the foreigner that Italian men, in turn, have their own way of reacting to such requests: punching the wannabe buyer in the face! Of course, comical Gavanelli milks the scene for every laugh it’s worth – much to the aud’s delight.
Rossini and Romani’s lighthearted depiction of the eternal war between the sexes is more than a bawdy romp. Beneath the frivolous surface are serious issues, such as the fact that one-size-fits-all monogamy is, in fact, not natural for all humans (just check the divorce rate.) In The Turk in Italy polygamy battles fidelity; the eponymous polyamorous Turk must surrender his harem -- and of course Fiorella must pay for enjoying sex and multiple partners. Call it the “Jezebel sin-drome.” However, since Turk is a comedy, this opera buffo doesn’t have the grim tragic finale of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto or Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Although as infidelity gives way to “domestic bliss,” some ardent feminists, sexual revolutionaries, etc., might consider this a fate worse than death.
Nevertheless, a good time was had by all at the Dorothy Chandler, and Rossini’s buoyant score, which leaps to life under the twirling baton of conductor James Conlon, is enough to lift the spirits of a suicidal manic depressive about to jump off the Golden Gate. There are no sumptuous sets to "ooh" and "ahh" at here, but scenery and lighting designers Herbert Maurauer and Reinhard Traub have collaborated to render some clever sets and effects with what appear to be scrims, projections and the like. At one point black clad chorusmen (no, not stagehands!) appear onstage to rig up a giant screen or curtain. Kristin Shaw Minges’ choreography is lovely, and at times, appropriately sexually provocative.
My only reservation concerns the direction of the German Christof Loy and Axel Weidauer, and their deploying of “Regietheater” in order to update Rossini’s early 19th century frolick. They set the story in relatively (if indeterminate) modern times, but this does absolutely nothing to better serve Rossini’s saga. This rendition would have appealed even more if Maurer’s sets and costumes were allowed to take us back to Rossini’s era. Indeed, the production’s best effect is a fabled mode of transport staright out of Aladdin. Re-setting William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in 20th century Manhattan and replacing Verona’s balconies with New York’s fire escapes in West Side Story was a stroke of genius, but Loy and Weidauer are no Leonard Bernsteins, and Rossini is in no position to take issue with the liberties they’ve taken with his creation. Their unfortunate switcheroo does not enhance what is otherwise Rossini’s euphoric night at the opera buffo.
The Turk in Italy runs through March 13 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown Los Angeles. For more information: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com