Not for nothing does Rossini quote Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte in Il turco in Italia: like Mozart's great comedies, the opera thrives on its moral ambiguity. Who's in the right? Certainly not Fiorilla, the flirtatious Italian girl, nor her grumpy, neglectful husband, nor the Turkish prince who comes and seduces her, nor her other lover, Don Narciso. Even the poet, Prosdocimo, is at fault for manipulating people's actions and intruding on their lives in order to gain fodder for his new libretto.
All of this is why I've always been especially fond of Il turco, since for me Rossini panders less to bel canto virtuoso conventions and underlines the interpersonal tension of the libretto in his score. The ensembles are, without exception, magnificently structured, and we're thrown from one situation to the next with lightning speed, rarely lingering to show off the singers' voices just for the sake of it.
The work is strikingly modern – almost a soap opera in its social collisions, in fact – and Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser's production, now revived for only the first time by The Royal Opera, revels in its delicious naughtiness. We're left in no doubt that sex and money make the world go round, and by presenting this with brutal honesty, the directors reveal why the opera was rejected as immoral and left virtually unperformed until a major revival and recording by Maria Callas led to its revival in the post-War era. Don Geronio finds Fiorilla and Selim in bed, and on another occasion Selim and the gypsy Zaida make love in the back of a car. Selim offers to buy Fiorilla from Geronio, and Narciso scarcely hides his relationship with Fiorilla from Geronio.
Added to all of this, the way in which the poet observes everything going awry in such a clinical fashion gives the production a satirical gloss, enhanced by the dolce vita updating to the 1950s or '60s. There's spectacle throughout: evocatively sliding panels, clouds, a yacht, two cars and a Vespa are just a few of the impressive aspects of the production, which remains as compelling and amusing as on its first outing in 2005.
All that's missing is the star voltage provided on that original occasion by Cecilia Bartoli, who was a radiant Fiorilla. Here, Aleksandra Kurzak is charming in the role but struggles with the high tessitura and often approximates the high notes rather than hitting them dead-centre. At this second performance, she warmed up considerably in the second act and sang with more richness of tone in her poignant final aria, but overall she did not quite live up to the part.
The vocal honours easily went to Colin Lee in the thankless role of Don Narcisco: with his one aria in Act 2, he brought the house down, simply because he has the technical equipment that this repertoire needs. He's also deeply expressive, too, and his return to the revival of La fille du regiment in May is something to anticipate.
Predictably, Thomas Allen and Alessandro Corbelli were as wonderful as ever in the roles of Prosdocimo and Don Geronio, respectively. Admittedly, neither of them sings with quite the lustre of five or ten years ago, but their expressivity, their mastery of the stage, their communicative abilities and their collegiality (especially with one another) are almost worth the price of admission alone.
For my taste, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo doesn't quite make enough impact as Selim: he lacks the smoothness of line in his singing and the comic haughtiness in his acting to really compete with someone like Ruggero Raimondi or Sesto Bruscantini, though he by no means lets the side down. Young Artist Steven Ebel sings beautifully in the brief role of Albazar, and Leah-Marian Jones is her usual reliable self as Zaida.
What the revival lacks is the final dose of sparkle that Rossini demands, and conductor Maurizio Benini's slightly leaden tempi and four-square phrasing is partly to blame. Once or twice the co-ordination between pit and stage was lost at this performance, and the orchestra only reached fifth gear towards the end of the opera. However, there was a sense of commitment and effort from all involved, and in the end the delightful production and Rossini's mastery make the trip to Covent Garden well worthwhile.
Credit: Clive Barda