I have a wyf, the worste that may be;
For thogh the feend to hire ycoupled were,
She wolde hym overmacche…
Chaucer’s Merchant was railing about his shrewish wife, and telling the tale of the rich old man who marries a woman decades his junior, in the late 1300s, and the basic story is found in even earlier folklore: Rossini’s opera adds the twist of the poet in search of an operatic subject, and in this revival of the 2005 Moshe Leiser / Patrice Caurier production, both the ‘January and May’ story and the search for ‘un drama buffo’ are told with fast-paced narrative, vibrant settings and some superb singing.
It’s always a special joy to hear singers who are just ‘made’ for their roles, but it’s a rare one to encounter a production where everyone on stage fits that description. Covent Garden regulars fell in love with Alexsandra Kurzak when she nailed some of Mozart’s most fiendish music whist shimmying through doorways clad in six-foot-wide dresses in Mitridate, re di Ponto, and here she is once more singing with silvery tone, insouciant grace and complete mastery of some pretty challenging coloratura. She’s a convincing actress, too, so that when she despairs at the thought of what looks like a not exactly joyful ‘return to Sorrento’ in ‘Squallida veste e bruna’ our sympathies are with her, however annoyed the character might have previously made us feel. Needless to say she looks stunning in her costumes (Agostina Cavalco).
Alessandro Corbelli could steal so many shows, often from the likes of Juan Diego Flórez, and the fact that he resists the temptation and remains an ensemble player is remarkable given his comic gifts and mastery of the Rossini ‘patter-song.’ Although there were a few occasions when his tone was less sharply etched than usual, his acting never failed – the production gives him a great deal to work with, and he raises plenty of laughter, whether brandishing a spaghetti-laden fork as a weapon or bewailing his lot as the husband of a flighty wife. Barry Banks, as the almost equally put upon Narciso, clad in canary denims and bristling quiff, provided much hilarity as well as excellent singing, deservedly applauded for ‘Tu seconda il mio disegno.’
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo was perfect casting for the dangerously charming Turk, his singing as persuasive and unctuous as his person; he embodied the ideal sense of the exotic – after all, it was his ‘Turkishness’ which attracted Fiorilla – yet he managed to convince you that he was not just a wandering seducer. Rachel Kelly’s fresh, vibrant Zaida gave constant pleasure – what a season this very promising young singer is having, with her much-praised roles in L’Ormindo and Orfeo.
Thomas Allen’s Prosdocimo may have lost a little in terms of vocal lustre over the years, but he is still the perfect embodiment of the rather world-weary philosopher figure in whom you can’t help but hear his Music-Master or his Don Alfonso. Luis Gomes made a striking impression as Albazar; a new name, but one to watch, he sings Fenton in July’s Falstaff. The chorus, whether as pilfering gypsies or tulle-clad ball-partners, sang with gusto and were sharply directed – it’s seldom that you hear so many laughs in a dancing scene as we had here with ‘Amor la danza mova.’
The set designs (Christian Fenouillat) evoke the bright, unrelenting light of Southern Italy, and succeed in transporting us to a world devoid of pastel or greyness. Evelino Pidò is a Rossini specialist whose love for this music was clear in every bar, and he drew sparkling playing from the ROH orchestra. Il turco in Italia is not a work which you’ll find performed all that frequently – the present production was its first outing at Covent Garden – and it needs a stellar cast and a staging which brings out that quintessentially Italianate feeling of sunlit, languid pleasure which we dwellers under grey skies so crave. You’ll find both requirements in this production.