Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Rossini - Il Turco in Italia (Aix-en-Provence, 2014 - Webcast)

Gioachino Rossini - Il Turco in Italia 

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2014 

Marc Minkowski, Christopher Alden, Adrian Sâmpetrean, Olga Peretyatko, Alessandro Corbelli, Lawrence Brownlee, Pietro Spagnoli, Cecelia Hall, Juan Sancho

ARTE Concert - Live Streaming, July 2014

For it to be one of the composer's early comedies, composed the year after L'Italiana in Algeri, there is nonetheless something of an air of sophistication and modernism in Rossini's Il Turco in Italia. There may not be any greater subtlety or examination of cultural differences in the clash of Western and Eastern traditions than the previous work, but there is a little more interest in examining problematic areas in the relationship between men and women. Those questions might not be examined quite to the same level of sophistication and invention as Mozart, but if L'Italiana in Algeri is Rossini's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Il Turco in Italia is his Così Fan Tutte.

What sets Il Turco apart from L'Italiana is the unusual almost post-modern, proto-Pirandellian meta-fiction device of the work being devised, orchestrated and more or less written as it goes along by a Poet seeking to create a drama. In reality, his role is not much more than that of the manipulations of Don Alfonso in Così Fan Tutte, but it's a gift for an opera director who wants to play with the work on various levels. It's maybe not so complex for the conductor. Although there are moments of brilliance, musically it's pretty much Rossini by numbers, but there's a considerable amount of fun to be had in generating and measuring the famous Rossini drive through to the end of the work. In both respects then, Il Turco in Italia is more clever than inspired, and the same could be said for the Aix-en-Provence production.

In Christopher Alden's production, the Poet is indeed central to the purpose as well as the development of the drama. He's seen labouring over his writing desk during the overture, only finding inspiration when six characters in search of an author arrive in the little Italian port town where he has taken up residence. One is the flirty Fiorilla who is cheating on her husband Don Geronio with her lover Don Narciso, making both men's lives miserable. Now she has her eye set on the exotic figure of a Turkish prince, Selim, who has just arrived in town. The attraction is mutual, but Selim has other attachments - whether he wants them or not - with Zaida, who has fled from his displeasure with her faithful Albazar, the two of them also in town now with a group of bohemian travellers.

Recognising the potential of this situation as material for a drama, the poet Prosdocimo starts to manipulate the six characters towards his own ends. He doesn't, it has to be said, do an awful lot that is original with them, falling back into the standard plot devices like stirring jealousy with letters and getting them to adopt disguises in a way that causes confusion and havoc at masked balls. Then again, they are fairly stock characters - flirty young wife, jealous older husband, timid lover and exotic foreigner, with a couple to be added as sacrificial secondary characters (think Masetto and Zerlina from Don Giovanni) to stir up the jealousy, infidelity and the drama even further. It's not surprising that this serves to give Rossini fairly run-of-the-mill material for by-the-numbers writing, although being Rossini, it's often dazzling and entertaining, particularly when there is a good cast available, and there's a good cast available here.

Alden evidently emphasises the manipulation of the drama for the Poet/Composer/Director's own ends. Six characters, two women and four men is not the ideal arrangement for a happy ending, but it's enough for the poet to work though several troubled combinations. Alden's poet accordingly works furiously at his typewriter and hands out scripts for the characters to perform. The men seem happy or resigned to play the roles that life has allotted them, the stronger female roles less so. Fiorilla at one stage takes the typewriter into her own hands here and writes the part for herself, refusing to accept conventions, but - somewhat predictably and unexcitingly as far as the potential of the opera goes (and sadly for the weaker examples of the species, Don Narciso and Albazar are written out), the status quo is more or less resumed by the end.

The set design doesn't do an awful lot with the potential of the work either, set in what looks like a large tiled Turkish bath-house (without baths), with the large figure head of a ship being wheeled on at certain points for no discernible reason. Curtains are used not so much in a manner to highlight the dramatic satire as provide opportunities for minor prop changes. It functions well enough however, leaving the real work to be done with the characterisation - such as it is - and the direction of the performances. The potential is indeed at its best when it allows Fiorilla to make her own mark on the Poet's script in Act II when she makes her feelings known to Selim about his indecision with regard to choosing between her and Zaida.

It's also at its best in this scene because it has the strengths of the singers Adrian Sâmpetrean and Olga Peretyatko there to make it work. Both are marvellous, Sâmpetrean's smooth bass complementing the Peretyatko's bright soprano. Peretyatko also has the necessary star-quality and vocal range to carry off a strong female Rossini lead like this, her delivery of Fiorilla's final aria 'Squallida veste, e buona' every bit as impressive as it ought to be. As has been characteristic of this year's Aix festival, the casting has been strong right across the board and there are no weaknesses elsewhere in Turco. Alessandro Corbelli provides good singing and comic acting as Geronio; Lawrence Brownlee's slumped-over Narciso delivers some gorgeous self-pitying arias; Pietro Spagnoli is solid as the master-of-ceremonies poet holding it all together; Cecelia Hall is a sparkling Zaida; and Juan Sancho makes a fine song and dance of Albazar's only aria.