Saturday, July 12, 2014


Zaida and Fiorilla in front of the Turkish "ship."

James Karas

Fate was simply not on the side of the Aix-en-Provence Festival for a couple of days this year. Perhaps that eschatological supposition is exaggerated. Let’s say that the union representing stage hands and technicians who work occasionally, “les intermittents,” went on strike. A polite strike in the end but sufficiently bad to cause the cancellation of the opening production of Il Turco in Italia on July 4.

There was a second performance scheduled for July 7 and all was well with union. It was no so with the weather as rain was forecast and playing in the open-air Théâtre de l'Archevêché, was not a good idea. They decided to transfer the performance to the Grand Théâtre de Provence and tell everyone about the switch. Somehow the message trickled through but the performance was to be a concert version or a semi-staged affair at best.

Fortunately the union and the weather cooperated and the opera was performed at l'Archevêché on July 9, 2014.

There is nothing more pleasant than seeing a production twice in three days unless, that is, you can see it three times. The concert performance was thoroughly enjoyable. The characters wore the same costumes as in the staged performance and you got some idea of what Director Christopher Alden had in mind.

Alden seems to have taken some inspiration for his conception of the opera from Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Il Turco is structured around a poet looking for plot ideas from the happenings on the beach of Naples. A Turk arrives and falls in love with the lovely Fiorilla. Don Narcisso is already in love with her and her husband Don Geronio is pretty mad about it. The Turk is followed by Zaida, a former love of his. For the poet this is pretty juicy stuff and excellent plot material.

In the concert version, Il Turco turned into Seven Characters in Search of a Director. When I saw the staged version, I confirmed that the characters in the concert performance appeared in costume. They all wore modern clothes that would be suitable in Naples, I suppose. There was nothing particularly notable about what any of them wore except for Fiorilla who was a knockout.

There was some interaction among the characters to be sure but with the stage occupied by Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble there was not much space to do very much. Under the circumstances, the cast did extraordinary work. In the end, the performers received a thoroughly enthusiastic and sustained ovation.                     

However good, it was still like kissing through a fence – something was missing. There is no substitute for a fully staged performance.

Alden converts Rossini’s “dramma buffa” into a play-within-a-play using the character of the Poet Prosdocimo as the directing mind of the unfolding events. The Poet is not just an observer of happenings; he directs and creates some of the events of the opera. He gives the characters sheets of paper containing dialogue and they read out what he has written for them. The Poet becomes the most important character in the opera.

The major characters are on stage most of the time, even when they have nothing to do. After all this is a play/opera in the making and not an actual performance.    

Who makes the poet’s plot?

Don Geronio and Fiorilla 

Fiorilla (sung beautifully by Olga Peretyatko) is an airhead but she is a gorgeous airhead. She is also a coquette, a teaser and a sexual magnet that no sensible man could resist. She puts on a blonde wig, strips to a slip and drives men crazy. She is married to the older Don Geronio (Alessandro Corbelli) and falls in love with Selim the Turk (Adrian Sampetrean) and invites him to her house for coffee. Peretyatko brings out all these traits and in the end sings “Squallida veste e bruna,” a show-stopping aria where Fiorilla repents and sees herself as she is. With beautiful but restrained ornamentation and outpouring of emotion, her bravura performance brings the house down. In the concert performance Peretyatko fell on her knees; in the staged performance she wrapped herself in the sail of the ship that is part of the set. Both nights she was magnificent.

Corbelli, short, chubby, is the perfect comic character. He can do patter songs, comic business and deliver those funny baritone roles as if they written for him.    

Sampetrean as Selim appears just like any visitor to Naples, wearing a not-too-distinctive cap. There are no jewels on his turban, nor any fancy robes as the libretto mentions. He serves the production well vocally.        

Baritone Pietro Spagnoli, as I said, is given center stage by Alden. Even before the overture, we see him pacing up and down, looking at his typewriter, a man in distress. He is suffering from writer’s block until he sees a good story unfolding before his eyes. He controls the development of the characters until a couple of them rebel against their creator. Spagnoli is a fine acting singer who brings to life the Poet.

Don Narcisso is a puzzling character. He is in love with Fiorilla and provides one more source of fun, I suppose. He is a relatively minor character but he does get a major aria in “Tu seconda il mio disegno.” But do you bring the extraordinary tenor Lawrence Brownlee for that? Alden makes Narcisso into a pathetic non-entity in a trench coat. He walks with his head down, tilted to the side; he looks and acts like a lifeless loser. In the concert version, Brownlee walked on stage with self-assurance. In the staged performance, he had to act the role of the dummy and I am not sure why Alden cast the character as such.

By adopting Pirandellian ideas for Il Turco, Alden makes the opera more interesting and perhaps a more substantial work. Its silly plot becomes a play in the making, Prosdocimo becomes a writer in search of a plot whose characters rebel against him. Not bad for an opera whose plot seems pretty inane.  

Il Turco in Italia by Gioacchino Rossini was performed in a concert version on July 7 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence and in a fully staged version on July 9 at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché where it will be performed another five times until July 22, 2014 in Aix-en-Provence, France.

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