Il Turco in Italia, Opera House, Buxton

A Turkish tale full of delight
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The Independent Culture

An opera in which its creator takes a central role on stage, trying - not always successfully - to control the plot and the characters, sounds like an exercise in postmodernism. But self-conscious modernity is older than you think: Rossini and his librettist, Felice Romani, devised Il Turco in Italia nearly two hundred years ago, and its sophistication and ambiguity can still surprise us.

An opera in which its creator takes a central role on stage, trying - not always successfully - to control the plot and the characters, sounds like an exercise in postmodernism. But self-conscious modernity is older than you think: Rossini and his librettist, Felice Romani, devised Il Turco in Italia nearly two hundred years ago, and its sophistication and ambiguity can still surprise us.

Fiorilla, a Neapolitan, is perhaps bored with her elderly husband, Don Geronio. When a glamorous Turkish prince arrives in town, she takes a fancy to him and he to her.

But Selim's longstanding love, Zaida, is determined to prevent this, as is Fiorilla's admirer, Don Narciso. Don Geronio is upset, too, but deference and courtesy to a distinguished visitor, as well as Fiorilla's cleverness, inhibit him. The usual confusion results and, this being comedy, is finally resolved in a feel-good conclusion, staged to maximum effect by Giles Havergal in this Buxton Festival production.

Il Turco may not be Rossini's very best comedy, but that is to judge it by the highest standards. No one can match his wit and high spirits. This is not a matter of the music alone, but of the way it requires to be staged, and how the staging clarifies what is being sung and played. Rossini has to be seen as well as heard, and this is especially true of an ensemble opera such as Il Turco, where you need to hear as many words as possible but also to see how the characters are reacting to each other and to the particular impasse they have reached.

Diction was excellent here, and Andrew Porter's translation raised plenty of laughs. "Six lumps or seven?" Fiorilla asks Selim as she serves him coffee.

Rossini comedy suits the intimate scale of the Buxton house. At first the singers pushed too hard, as if they had to fill the Coliseum or Covent Garden. But the more they relaxed, the better the performance went. The production, over-busy at the start, also settled down, and clever use was made of a shimmering three-dimensional picture-postcard view of the Bay of Naples, framed with lightbulbs (designed by Russell Craig).

By the time we reached the duet in which Fiorilla cunningly placates her irate husband, the performance had really taken off. Michelle Walton had all the agility necessary to cope with Fiorilla's elaborate coloratura, while Donald Maxwell, portly in three-piece suit complete with watch-chain, gave one of his best comic performances as the bewildered and outwitted husband. The complex finale to Act I was beautifully staged.

Act II went even better, even if Fiorilla lost her final and most touching aria. The duet for Selim (Tim Mirfin) and Don Geronio was brilliantly sung and acted, and the staging and lighting of the masked ball, in which Don Geronio, himself got up in Turkish style, is totally bewildered by the appearance of two more Selims and two more Fiorillas, was most effective. Nick Sales as Don Narciso confirmed his aptitude for Rossini's high tenor parts.

At the centre of the story stands the Poet, and Jeremy Huw Williams did the role with abundant communicative charm. Wyn Davies conducted an effervescent, if sometimes rather over-emphatic, orchestral performance.

Performances tomorrow, 19 and 24 July (0845 127 2190)

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