Opera review: ‘The Turk in Italy’ by Los Angeles Opera

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“The Turk in Italy.” The title sounds tired. Milanese operagoers in Italy thought so when Rossini’s “Il Turco in Italia” had its premiere at La Scala 1814. The idea was old, already used by other composers, and ‘Turco’ was a flop.

Although Maria Callas helped retrieve “Turco” from obscurity in the 1950s, the opera remains somewhat of a rarity. Music director James Conlon, who led the first Los Angeles Opera production of “Turco” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Saturday night, believes in it. And so, after this witty, wonderful performance, will many more.


For all its froth, “Turco” tackles a sensitive subject more pressing than ever. We laugh knowingly but anxiously, recognizing the timely, touchy topics of immigration, racism and sexual exploitation.

A foreign potentate comes to Italy, pleased to steal a young wife from a too old and too rich man. This young wife is pleased to be loved and pleased to accept largess, on her terms, wherever she finds it. Berlusconi’s Italy didn’t come out of the blue.

The libretto is enlivened by a poet in search of sensationalist subject matter for a play. Here too our taste for similar real-life, modern-day scandal transferred to the lyric stage continues unabated. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Anna Nicole” had its premiere in London Thursday night.

L.A. Opera’s “Turco” is imported from Bavarian State Opera and is by Christof Loy, a German director all but ubiquitous in Europe but making a considerably belated U.S. debut. By contemporary European standards, Loy is mainstream, which means possibly provocative but not preposterous.

Thus, Loy’s is no tasteless “Turco.” The production originated in Hamburg and plays it relatively safe, given that the opera opens in an émigré camp where Gypsies sing of living off the gullible, and Turks and Gypsies are hot-button topics in Germany. Loy moved the action to what looks like early-'60s Naples. Herbert Murauer’s inventive set and elegantly wacky costumes, engagingly lighted by Reinhard Traub, provides a visual spectacle full of surprise.

Selim, the Turkish prince, arrives in Italy for a little R&R, with a wardrobe of garish suits, a large hoop earring and a body guard. In a series of very complicated plot twists, he reconnects with a former slave and lover, Zaida, now a fortune teller with the Gypsies. But first he meets, falls for and attempts to buy Fiorilla. A flirt who extols the right to sexual liberty, she henpecks her husband, Don Geronio, and carries on an affair with a nobleman, Don Narciso, whom Loy portrays as a kind of Italian Fonz. A poet, a friend of Don Geronio, meddles to the degree necessary to inflame jealousies.

The music dazzles. With his 11th opera, the 22-year-old Rossini was continually alive to fast-paced action and changing emotional alliances. Jokiness disguises sympathetic characters of near-Mozartean depth who ultimately gain a social awareness. The finale, which Rossini farmed out, is a slight letdown. In an essay reprinted in the program book, Philip Gossett plausibly suggests that Rossini might have been uneasy with the libretto’s too flip comic ending.

Loy’s production is often cute, occasionally slapstick, continually amusing but never flip and always true to the music. Opera on the German stage these days typically comes with at least a bare minimum of sexual suggestion. That is found in Jacqueline Davenport’s smart choreography (revived by Kristin Schaw Minges) in which slinky dancers freeze in lascivious poses in the background.

Actually, Loy hasn’t made his U.S. debut yet in the flesh; the production is brilliantly re-created by Alex Weidauer, who got consistently superb performances from everyone on stage.

The veteran baritone Thomas Allen is affectionate and hilariously hapless as the poet Prosdocimo, his influence on the action always at his own physical expense. As Fiorilla, Nino Machaidze, a soulfully dark-toned soprano who made a star turn in the L.A. Opera production of “L’Elisir d’Amore” last season more as a singer than an actress, proves this time a magnetic comedian. Whether she is changing in an instant from vixen to harridan, putting on makeup or making cappuccino, she continually twirls exquisite Rossinian roulades.

Kate Lindsey, who has been garnering attention in New York as an emerging mezzo-soprano, seems a bit all-American as Zaida, but she produced a pure, sure, all-around lovely sound. Maxim Mironov, as Don Narciso, is a true Rossinian tenor, sweet and extremely flexible, but unlike many a Rossinian tenor, he is also able to squeeze into very tight jeans. Simone Alberghini is a suave Selim. Paolo Gavanelli’s henpecked Don Geronio so captures the quintessential buffo Italian patriarch that you almost wish he might try parodying Berlusconi.

If the L.A. Opera orchestra began unsteadily, first-night nerves settled soon enough. Although Conlon looked strangely grim at his curtain call, he conducted with a perfect sense of comic timing -- fast, light and lyrical, all the time savoring every spectacular Rossini detail and sentiment. This is, on every imaginable level, something very special.

Related: Los Angeles Opera faces a modern-day dilemma

-- Mark Swed

‘The Turk in Italy,’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 2 p.m. Feb. 27 and March 13; 7:30 p.m. March 2, 5 and 10; $20-$270; (213) 972-8001 or Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.