Gioacchino Rossini--genial, wily, precocious and perhaps a bit cynical--was only 22 when he wrote "Il Turco in Italia," which was presented in beguiling revisionist garb Sunday afternoon by the Long Beach Opera at the Center Theater.
It is worth noting that the composer called his opus a dramma buffo , which is cleverly oxymoronic. Clearly, this seldom-performed comic drama is more than a formula exercise in mellifluous clowning. A serious thought lurks beneath every joke. Well, almost every joke.
The inherent contradictions of tone make "Il Turco" quite different from the simpler, more frivolous "Italiana in Algeri," which materialized the year before. Significantly, perhaps, the composer called that effort a dramma giocosa --playful drama. And when he got around to "Il Barbiere di Siviglia," a couple of years after "Il Turco," the simple label was commedia .
The dark complexity of "Il Turco in Italia" may help explain its relative neglect. The opera wasn't exactly a smash hit at its La Scala premiere in 1814, and 130 years passed before it returned to Milan as a vehicle for Maria Callas. American productions have been just as rare, although the New York City Opera made a valiant effort on behalf of Rossini and Beverly Sills in the 1970s. Los Angeles saw this version at the Music Center in 1978.
The Long Beach Opera has always been most successful, and most endearing, when confronting the most daunting challenges. Michael Milenski's brave little company may not command much of a budget, but it thrives on thinking big. Also on thinking iconoclastic.
On this occasion, Christopher Alden, one of the better bad-boys in the world of operatic revolution, did his inspired best to make modernist sense of the nonsense in "Il Turco in Italia." Without distorting a hemidemisemiquaver of the piquant score, and without damaging the essential dynamic structure of the libretto, he translated the impulses of the old dramma buffo into stimulating musical theater.
This, of course, was "The Turk in Italy," not "Il Turco in Italia." Intimate, direct communication in English is a basic necessity at the Long Beach Opera. Andrew Porter's bright translation served the expressive needs handily.
Felice Romani's somewhat disjointed libretto takes place in 18th-Century Naples. On one level, the plot concerns amorous intrigues involving the exotic Sultan Selim, a flirtatious Italian girl named Fiorella, her elderly husband Geronio, her young lover Narciso, and a soubrette, Zaida, who happens to love the Sultan. On another, more interesting level, the plot concerns the machinations of the poet Prosdocimo, who observes the action from the outside, comments upon it and, in effect, creates and controls it.
Alden turns the multilayered charade into a contemporary fantasy. Forget Naples. Forget nationalist typecasting. Forget cutesy mannerisms and operatic pretensions.
But remember, if you can, the poetic alienation of Brecht and the intellectual distancing of Pirandello. Aided by a brilliant designer, Carol Bailey, and a splashy lighting virtuoso, Adam Silverman, Alden tells the tale his way, in brash minimalist strokes.
He moves the opera to a wondrous world of parody and paradox.
At first, the setting resembles the auditorium of an old movie theater. Everything is cheap-lush maroon. The characters arrange themselves in ingenious combinations and permutations amid rows of plush seats that face us. After a while, the director forces the observer to wonder who is really on the stage and who is in the audience. It is a pretty, perplexing predicament.
In the second half of the opera, the set is dominated by a huge, long white platform. First it is a table. Then it becomes a stage within the stage for the audience within the audience.
The characters are gently, wittily stylized. Fiorella has turned into a carefree amoral vamp who looks terrific in black lingerie. Her husband is a sad bumbler. The Turk is a matinee idol in a dazzling white suit. The poet is an agonized erastz director who always clutches, and sometimes molests, his trusty notebook.
Twelve gentlemen in black move in and out of the background with discerning, sardonic discipline. They halfheartedly pretend to be glee-club sailors or gypsies. They really function as scenery here, and as Greek chorus there. They also mime some nifty phallic jokes with hats, raincoats and flashlights.
Stubborn purists may not like all this. But purists have not kept "Il Turco in Italia" in the standard repertory for 180 years. And any open-minded purist would have to admit that Alden's imaginative, irreverent images do no harm to the original words and music. The director's triumph, in this happy case, is the composer's triumph too.
The composer's immediate alter ego in Long Beach was Ward Holmquist, who conducted a somewhat scrappy little orchestra at stage left with brio and accompanied the recitatives stylishly on a tiny cembalo. He maintained decent eye contact with the peripatetic cast via a strategically placed TV monitor.
The peripatetic cast--a team in the best sense of the cliche--performed with tireless zest and considerable savoir-faire. Despite its flights of vocal bravado, "Il Turco in Italia" remains an ensemble opera first and foremost, and Michael Milenski managed to assemble an appreciative ensemble of exceptionally talented singing-actors.
Maria Fortuna exuded just the right aura of smug erotic charm as Fiorella and took coloratura flight with elan, a little wiry tone notwithstanding. Dean Ely blustered handsomely as the titular Turk. Spiro Malas, who portrayed the Turk in the New York City Opera edition, reveled here in the befuddled baritonal bonhomie of Geronio.
Leroy Villanueva suffered, exulted and, at travel time, waved a tiny ship in the air as the poet-puppeteer, and did it all with intense finesse. Suzan Hanson held her own splendidly as the pretty seconda donna. Craig Estep showed no fear of the tenoral stratosphere and exhibited a nice sense of self-mockery as Narciso.
Michael Horton offered enlightened comprimario support as Albazar. The dirty-dozen choristers performed with sleazy gusto, as required.
For reasons unfathomable, the Long Beach Opera scheduled only two performances of this brilliant, provocative production. The Center Theater accommodates only 860. Hint.
* "The Turk in Italy," performed by the Long Beach Opera at Center Theater of the Long Beach Convention Center. Final performance Wednesday at 8 p.m. $22, $40, $60 (student and senior rush seats $10, if available). (310) 596-5556 .