Rossini’s six characters in search of an author find one, plus a first-rate director and production to boot.

Opera Australia and Sydney Festival

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

January 22, 2014

Rossini’s East-meets-West comedy of manners (or more correctly his commedia del arte of manners) The Turk in Italy (Il Turco in Italia) hails from 1814, the year after the highly successful Italian Girl in Algiers, to which it is in some respects a sequel. I confess to having rated it, in the past, behind its predecessor in terms of sheer musical invention and it does pale beside the comic, dramatic and musical genius of The Barber of Seville, still two years down the track. But, as Opera Australia prove in their smart new production, it has bags of wit and in the hands of an outstanding director, designers and some stellar turns it can charm the pants off anyone with a funny bone worth the tickling.

Simon Phillips is the director in question and, on this showing, Australia’s finest when it comes to buffoonery and sheer comic chutzpah. He fills every waking second of this fizzing production with ‘business’ but his business is not just busy, it’s lovingly crafted, given space to breathe, and packed with the kind of slow-burn gags which can take an entire musical number to develop and reach their hilarious payoff. He also knows what his actors are capable of, so no one is left with egg on their faces and natural comedic talents (with which this show abounds) are able to take and run with Phillips’ slapstick balls.

A great deal of the fun is situational and revolves around the seaside postcard setting – there’s a lovely sequence where the men of the chorus take forever to erect a series of deck chairs for their bathing-beauty ladies. Sure, there’s a lot of ‘tits and bums’ humour here – there’s even a Benny Hill chase in the delightfully staged overture – but then that’s what Rossini and his librettist Felice Romani were after – that and some fond side-swipes at the racial preconceptions of the day. And Phillips is never (well, hardly ever) gratuitous – he always tailors his jokes to the plot and uses them to enhance and reveal character.

The update to the 1950s is beautifully realised in Gabriela Tylesova’s ‘Doo wop’ set – a magnificent and cleverly revolving cup-cake shaped retro café owned by the hapless husband of the piece. The costumes are equally dazzling – every period detail in place from Dior to day dresses with some gorgeous beachwear thrown in for good measure. Nick Schlieper’s intricate lighting design brings this all to life with great panache.

Among the singers there is hardly a weak link and nothing serious enough to derail the evenings entertainment. Emma Matthews plays Fiorilla, the goodtime girl in search of, well, a good time, and not too fussed about where she finds it. We are fortunate to be able to enjoy Matthews in what must surely be her prime – a singer both staggering in her coloratura and razor sharp of diction, every top note secure and seemingly always able to hit the money note. But she is also a fine comic actress, able to make us care about this highly sexed kitten that ogles every Turk who crosses her path, while we laugh at every lascivious pant and wiggle. She can channel her inner-Callas too, making Fiorilla's glamour (mostly) outweigh her hormonal yearnings.

She is well matched in the love game by Paolo Bordogna’s spivvy rocker of a Pasha complete with mirror shades, medallion and gold lamé hotpants. This gifted Italian singer, and something of a Rossini specialist, has a warm, agile baritone and oodles of charisma and his tone is allied with superlative diction. He pulls off the neat trick of being both ridiculous in his primping and perfumed pride and genuinely sexy at the same time.

Conal Coad is the luckless spouse, Geronio, capturing that blend of middle-aged pomposity underneath an unconvincing ginger dye-job. Coad is a master of buffo style, his gruff bass always at the service of the text and capable of some pretty nifty patter. The duet for Geronio and the Turk, where the latter attemts unsucesfully to purchase the former’s wife, is comic genius – a duel that incorporates each protagonist’s national beverage, lemons as hand weapons, ice down the pants and a soda syphon that ends up all over the hapless cocktail waiter.

The waiter in question is Samuel Dundas, rapidly developing into one of our finest comic actors. Here he is the ‘poet’ in search of inspiration for his play while filling in time behind Geronio’s bar. He is a constant and engaging presence, always watchable but sensitive to pulling focus. He looks like he makes a mean cocktail as well should he ever need to supplement his income. His voice is potent and focused with some splendid top notes, only occasionally needing a little more power to project as far as the circle.

The other overseas visitor in the cast is the Brazilian Luciano Botelho as Geronio’s duplicitous ‘friend’ Narciso. He throws himself into Phillips’ comic milleu with great abandon and, if the voice is not a large one, he makes up for it with grace and agility. Given that the role is eminently surplus to plot requirements, it’s a credit to him that he brings the house down with his second act aria in which, confined to a bathing hut, he drops his pants, deodorises and changes into an Elvis suit (don’t ask – it leads to one of the funniest moments in the show later on…).

Last but not least of the six main characters is the Pasha’s former ‘sex-slave’, Zaida. I say not least because by any standards the Opera Australia debut of Anna Dowsley must be accounted a triumph. A member of the Moffatt Oxenbould Young Artist Program, the young mezzo shows a warm, flexible voice of considerable power and projection and dramatically held her own against all comers. She was ably supported by Graeme Macfarlane as her dutiful confidant Albazar.

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra carry it all off with aplomb in the experienced and enthusiastic hands of Italian conductor Andrea Molino and it was nice to hear a fortepiano in the pit as continuo. If Phillips is worthy of applause for his production, his translation projected in the surtitles also deserves a mention. A saucy array of references to hunky spunks, hotties and root-rats laced with some choice language (via di qua = bugger off, for example) got its own share of laughs. A production to cherish, then, and by the end even an old Turco sceptic like me was cheering and stamping along with the rest.

Opera Australia’s The Turk in Italy is at Sydney Opera House until February 12 and then plays Arts Centre Melbourne, May 1-13.


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