Setting operas in the fifties and sixties is very much in vogue.
In the past year alone, productions of The Rake’s Progress at the Royal Opera House, L’Elisir d’Amore at both the ROH and Coliseum, and Cosi Fan Tutte for English Chamber Opera, have all utilised the decades.
The reasons why aren’t hard to find. This period is still recent enough to retain a certain air of familiarity, but also historical’ enough to maintain many of the traditional values and hierarchies that the operas originally played on. But with the Royal Opera House’s first revival of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s 2005 production of Il Turco in Italia, the cast is so strong that it could be set when Neanderthals roamed the earth and still work a treat.
Rossini’s opera is a comedy of errors involving a series of love triangles between various Turkish and Italian characters, the added twist being that the errors’ are purposely engineered by the poet Prosdocimo as he searches for material for his play. It’s all light-hearted fun, but this production squeezes every last ounce of wit from the scenario, without ever selling out when it comes to characterisation or singing. Every aspect is designed to heighten the exuberant effect, with the set consisting of layers of colourful interlocking rectangles that frame the drama, and luxury yachts, Vespas, bubble cars and green taxis frequently gracing the stage.
But the evening is really made by the performances. At the centre are Aleksandra Kurzak’s wanton Italian, Fiorilla, and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Turkish prince, Selim. Unusually, we warm to the fickle Fiorilla as Kurzak, with her mature but pure voice, emphasises her roots in poverty and shows how it is simply in her feisty nature not to be tied to one man. D’Arcangelo’s voice is similarly firm, strong and resonant, and there is brilliant interaction between the two as they clasp each others’ hands whilst remaining at arms length. The implication is that both act out of love for themselves, rather than each other. Between the pair this isn’t a problem since both play the same game, but there are repercussions for everyone else bound up in their lives.
As Fiorilla’s cuckolded husband Don Geronio , Alessandro Corbelli is comedic perfection, lamenting his wife’s disloyalty by sticking his head in a bowl, tangling himself up in a palm tree and fighting a duel with a fork full of spaghetti. In one highly amusing bedroom scene, he and Colin Lee’s splendid Don Narciso, played as a teddy boy, act as the perfect counterbalance to Kurzak and D’Arcangelo’s own interaction. They may be rivals for Fiorilla’s affections, but even as they lament the existence of competition, they end up consoling each other at the end of the bed. Other comedy highlights include Selim and Don Geronio trapping a waiter tight between two chairs as they fight, and a glitzy, glamorous ball in which all the female attendees are played by blue-wigged men.
Thomas Allen’s Prosdocimo, dressed in a white suit and panama, somewhat resembles television presenter Dan Cruickshank as he tours the world to study its treasures. Whilst this couldn’t have been intentional, it’s a parallel that works well because both are theoretically observers of the action, but end up shaping it in their pursuit of a story. The only difference is that, thankfully, Allen’s voice is far less breathy!
Leah-Marian Jones is also excellent as Zaida, whilst in the pit Maurizio Benini leads the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in an exuberant and highly effective tour de force. Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia is simply too light-hearted to make for a profound operatic experience, but this production proves that there is still more to these characters than meets the eye, and for an all round set of exemplary performances it is hard to picture this evening really being bettered.