Full of Eastern promise

The Turk In Italy | Coliseum, London
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Cinecitta 1961; a deck-chaired male chorus of Marcello Mastroianni lookalikes; a train of shambolic bunny-girls; "Take 8 l/2" on the clapperboard; a flouncy screen diva in 3D specs; gold rushes on a garish projection screen; a scriptless quasi-Fellini, Johnny Walker Black Label in hand, fumbling at an antique Olivetti.

Cinecitta 1961; a deck-chaired male chorus of Marcello Mastroianni lookalikes; a train of shambolic bunny-girls; "Take 8 l/2" on the clapperboard; a flouncy screen diva in 3D specs; gold rushes on a garish projection screen; a scriptless quasi-Fellini, Johnny Walker Black Label in hand, fumbling at an antique Olivetti.

Does that sound just like Rossini? David Fielding's ENO production of Il Turco in Italia ( The Turk in Italy) aims to deliver a joke every 15 seconds, a visual coup every minute, and a new following for one of the composer's subtlest operas. The wheeze of a stage producer (read film director) spinning his next opera buffa (movie) from the bizarre battle of the sexes that surrounds him (his shrink's-fodder Turco-Italian cast) is as fine-tuned as Strauss's Capriccio or Schillings's Mona Lisa. As Richard Osborne's programme introduction points out, Il Turco is less a comic blockbuster, more a sophisticated chamber opera. Its prototype, complete with Don Alfonso-style manipulator, is Mozart's Cosi.

ENO's blotchy production has a lot to answer for, including a tedious first 40 minutes. The squandering of Rossini's overture was a warning sign. The film setting - a brilliant idea with loads of potential - soon loses lustre when you grasp that it's the evening's only big idea. Once you've seen it, you've seen it.

Thomas Allen is a wonderful presence; but what a waste - if you're going to fiddle around, why not pinch him an aria from somewhere? Fielding leaves him to get on with it. There were several stage fluffs: minor, but symptomatic. Had more effort been directed to priming the principals instead of pursuing thin laughs, the piece's deeper humour might have been mined.

Taken at its own level, it's a show stuffed, as Frankie Howerd would say, with titters. Rossini's librettist was Felice Romani, whose genius later served Bellini and Verdi. Kit Hesketh-Harvey's nauseously jingled translation (phosphorus-Bosphorus; jelly-tagliatelle-vermicelli) thrives on anachronism: Omar Sharif, Jean-Paul Sartre and Tommy Cooper pop up to real sniggers. Otherwise, the same jokes keep coming with monotonous regularity.

Yet Rossini's set pieces, when Fielding's freneticism goes on pause, are wonderful. Albazar (Ryland Davies), given scarcely a dozen lines, sings them gloriously. Toby Spence's Narciso, a coiffed pouting Cherubino, is exquisite, as is the horn obbligato. Victoria Simmonds's Zaida ignores Fielding's faff and grabs the music by the scruff of the neck. The piano recitative, folding into natural speech, is brisk, clever and together. Donald Maxwell's flummoxed, cuckolded Geronio contributes some brilliant prestissimo patter to the clutch of duos (facing down Jeremy White's loofah-wielding Selim) and memorable ensembles, especially the superb Act 1 men's trio. And Judith Howarth's coloratura film-star Fiorilla - an exquisite feline - somehow makes it all worthwhile.

 

To 18 Nov (020-7632 8300) and broadcast live by Radio 3 0n 28 Oct

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