It’s astounding to think that this is the first time the Royal Opera has ever performed Rossini’s Il turco in Italia. This completely new production is all the more welcome therefore, because it proves that Rossini was more than just a composer of overtures. The opera allows an ensemble cast to revel in a score of high comedy. Indeed, it is the music’s inherent wit that makes this one of the most delectable operatic feasts of the current opera season.
The neglect of Rossini both in the opera house and in musicology is a scandal. Not only is his music wonderful in itself, but it also played a key part in the development of Italian opera in the nineteenth century. Where would Verdi have been without Rossini? Il turco demonstrates his establishment of numerous techniques that would become the norm for several decades to come.
Three-part aria structures, complex ensembles and concerted finales are the backbone of this and Rossini’s other operas. Not merely tuneful and memorable, his music is highly emotional, introducing an element of fear and danger in even the comic works to counteract the possibility of boredom.
Rossini himself said that his greatest fear was that the audience would become bored, but there was no danger of that in the Royal Opera’s absolutely outstanding new production.
The directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier have once again come up with an intelligently updated version of a Rossini comedy, after their triumphant La Cenerentola of a few years ago. Their sense of fun is irresistible, with too many comic details to list here. My personal favourite was their modification of the denouement, when the eponymous Turk, Selim, takes away with him from Italy not only his beloved but also a symbol of culinary pride – an enormous pizza.
Other fine touches included manically moving panels painted in pastel colours puntuating the action, two functional cars, and a pop-up boudoir in Fiorilla’s house. The production takes as its ambience 1960s chic, recalling Pasolini and La dolce vita. Sophia Loren would surely approve of Christian Fenouillat’s evocative sets, Agnostino Cavalca’s beautiful costumes and Christophe Forey’s lighting.
Most of all, however, the success of the evening was due to a brilliant cast of true bel canto singers. As Fiorilla, the capricious though ultimately faithful wife of Don Geronio, Cecilia Bartoli justified all the acclaim she has received about her Rossini interpretations. Unlike her last Royal Opera appearance, which was underpowered and even a little ungainly, Bartoli seemed really comfortable with this role. Her powers as an actress allowed a multi-faceted portrayal
of the young Italian wife, and both her coloratura and her burnished tone were outstanding.
However, this was no star-vehicle of a show. After his wonderful Gianni Schicchi at Glyndebourne and the Proms last year, Alessandro Corbelli returned to wow us again with his astounding vocal technique and comic timing. He has an unusual ability to remain relaxed during long scale passages, so that neither tempo nor tuning go awry. This made his moments with Bartoli a joy to hear, repeating their partnership from Riccardo Chailly’s brilliant recording of the opera on Decca.
The most powerful of the singers was Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Selim, the mysterious Turk who arrives in Italy and has to choose between being reunited with his former lover, Zaida, or going off with the married Fiorilla. His voice perhaps lacks a last ounce of beauty, but he also has an impressive technique and projects better than his colleagues. More beautiful vocally was Barry Banks as Don Narciso, another of Fiorilla’s lovers, and although he did not quite manage to scale the heights of his Act 2 aria, elsewhere he was arrestingly attractive of tone.
Crowning such a stunning cast was the veteran Sir Thomas Allen, a marvel even now. His character of Don Prosdocino is a librettist trying to write an opera, and he manipulates the drama in a similar way to Don Alfonso in Così Fan Tutte, which Allen played so memorably last year at Covent Garden. True, it took him longer to warm up vocally, but he commended the stage from the start and was wonderfully idiomatic in the recitatives. Also worthy of mention are the Vilar Young Artist James Edwards, who simply shone as Albazar, and Heather Shipp as a strong if occasionally ugly sounding Zaida.
The chorus under Renato Balsadonna remains unsurpassed, while Adam Fischer made a welcome return to the pit to lead a distinguished reading of an unjustly neglected score.