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The Turk in Italy

by Heather Leviston

Opera Australia’s production of Rossini’s comic opera, The Turk in Italy, would have to rate, at the very least, as one of their most unflaggingly inventive creations. Photographs in the media have revealed some of the surprises, but there is such an abundance of wit on offer that it is difficult to register all the clever details – even as a member of the audience.

Attention is not only divided between the various pieces of action on stage; the surtitles are also a major source of amusement. Rossini’s libretto has an impressive provenance given that Romani based his version on one by Mazzola, mentor of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s most celebrated librettist. These three librettists may have had some reservations regarding Simon Phillips’ racy translation into colloquial English, but Mozart would surely have enjoyed it as much as the opening night audience.

Gabriela Tylesova’s sets and costumes were the perfect match for Simon Phillip’s inspired direction. Vibrantly colourful, they drew upon iconic features of the 1950s, with cherry and cream kitchen décor and shiny chrome bar stools and jukebox. Even incidental details such as the luminous lime green cordial and celery were treated as opportunities to dazzle.

The decorative ladies of the chorus who paraded as beach belles in stylish swim wear must have been chosen as much for their legs as their larynxes. Armed with hats, sunglasses and trendy magazines, they reclined in deck chairs provided by a group of mechanically challenged admirers, thus establishing a life of sybaritic indolence beside the sea in a town near Naples – all in one exhilarating and very busy Overture.

Appropriately enough, the Overture begins with a solo horn – a harbinger of the erotic focus of the opera. Suave horn playing also heralded an Orchestra Victoria in fine fettle under Anthony Legge, with generous embellishments from the keyboard during the recitatives adding to the general brio.

As Prosdocimo, the poet-cum-bar tender in search of a plot, Samuel Dundas was an assured vocal and dramatic presence. Whether trying to cobble together his farce or providing a sympathetic ear and helpful advice to the much put upon wealthy but elderly Geronio (Andrew Moran). Distinguished by more neutral clothing in contrast to Geronio’s check suit and the deliciously ridiculous costumes of Narciso, the lover of Geronio’s flirtatious wife, his relaxed style helped to penetrate the fourth wall as art echoed life.

Apart from deft handling of some hilarious stage business, John Longmuir sang the exacting tenor role of Narciso with considerable grace. This is an opera that contains a great deal of ensemble singing. It is just not possible to have a rest while all the others sing their big arias; the main characters have to be in good voice and work extremely hard. None more so than Fiorilla. Not only does she have to sing a spectacular aria, in addition to all those ensemble pieces; in this production she has a real physical workout in the process.

Simon Phillips is fortunate to have Emma Matthews to embody his concept of what really amounts to a nymphomaniac. Matthews is such a charming piece of naughtiness that it is impossible to resist her, even at her most slapstick vulgar. With her effervescent personality and brilliant coloratura, it is hard to imagine that anybody else could bring it off more convincingly. Along with a possible Visconti reference, her gorgeous costumes appear to be a nod to the Dior inspired costumes in films like Huit Femmes; and if the cream of French cinema can let their hair down and retain their dignity, why not the cream of Australian opera?

Decidedly undignified, but still wonderfully appealing, was Shane Lowrencev’s over-the-top portrayal of the Turk, Selim. Having already impressed Melbourne audiences as a rampant rake in Don Giovanni, a flair for broad comedy was added to his list of accomplishments with his portrayal of the ultimate alpha male and ‘root rat’ in Rossini’s opera. All flashing white teeth and showy gold jewellery, energetic and uninhibited sleaze was underpinned by a commanding vocal performance.

In this complicated story of sexual entanglement, where everything is resolved in line with acceptable social order, Anna Dowsley made a commendable OA debut as former sex slave Zaida, who eventually gets (back) her Turkish man. Looking rather fragile in the persona of a circus clown from a Fellini film, her well-projected mezzo was in keeping with an adventurous, feisty character up for a cat fight with a determined Fiorilla.

Full credit goes to Opera Australia for mounting a rarely performed work by a composer of comic genius. The dramatic and visual ingenuity of Simon Phillips and Gabriela Tylesova have joined with exceptional operatic talent to create something unique and hugely entertaining.

Photo: Jeff Busby

Andrew Moran as Geronio, Emma Matthews as Fiorilla, Shane Lowrencev as Selim and John Longmuir as Narciso.

Heather Leviston attended Opera Australia’s opening night of The Turk in Italy on May 1 at the State Theatre



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