OPERA: Il turco in Italia; Christ's Hospital, Horsham

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The Independent Culture
When Rossini's Il turco in Italia was first given at La Scala in August 1814, the Milanesi apparently gave it the cold shoulder, convinced that the composer's latest score, and not just its title, was blatantly recycled from his earlier L'Italiana in Algeri, the hit of the season before. They couldn't have been more wrong.

While the plot of the later opera - with its nymphomaniac Neapolitan housewife hell-bent on eloping with a visiting Turk - neatly reverses that of its predecessor - with its patriotic Italian captive desperate to escape the harem and return to her fiance and fatherland - the score for Il turco was all freshly minted, though not exclusively by Rossini himself. A composer so famously lazy he would rather re-write a page of manuscript than get out of bed to pick it up off the floor, the 21-year- old Rossini here farmed out not only all the secco recitatives, but three key numbers as well, including the whole of the Act 2 finale.

Odd, because, to anyone allergic to the usual madcap Rossinian rum-ti- tum, Il turco seems to bear the stamp of a more uniquely personal work, the composer's characteristically heartless humour here giving way to rare moments of genuine pathos and emotion, particularly whenever the cuckolded husband Geronio is involved. The dramaturgy, too - with its omnipresent Poet, alternately dictating the course of events and taking dictation from them - seems ahead of its time in its quasi-Pirandellian intermingling of fiction and reality. Wrong again: Felice Romani in fact lifted his libretto wholesale from an even earlier text by Caterino Mazzola - the man who revised Metastasio's Clemenza for Mozart - that had twice been set already, once by Sussmayr, the man who composed the recitatives for Mozart's Clemenza and completed his Requiem.

The Mozartian references are not entirely beside the point, since Il turco is surely Rossini's most Mozartian comedy. Some have detected upon it the influence of Cosi fan tutte, recently revived in Milan at the time of its premiere, and though the flighty Fiorilla certainly offers a married composite of the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella - both in her Diana- esque infatuation with men from the East and in the misogynistic cruelty of her final comeuppance - the Europhile Selim is clearly a close cousin (if not younger self) to his Mozartian namesake in Die Entfuhrung, while the oarsmen's chant as the Pasha comes ashore - to a sudden tenebrous darkening of Rossini's score - unmistakably casts the Turk as the avenging Dinner Guest to Fiorilla's licentious libertine.

That moment - a real colpo di scena in Simon Callow's new staging for Broomhill Opera - with the Turk revealed Vanderdecken-like at the prow of his mist-swathed ship - more than makes up for the sub-Ruddigorean amateur dramatics of the opening gypsy scene and the generally clueless handling of the chorus. An avowedly "conservative" director, Callow is at his best when leaving well enough alone: the one time he tries his hand at a bit of "concept" - with the demented Highland flingery of the foot-stamping, conga-weaving chorus at the climactic masked ball - it backfires badly, distracting attention from the crucial encounter in which poor Geronio, himself in Turkish fancy dress, finds himself confronted by two identical Turks wooing two identical Fiorillas (in reality, the real Fiorilla paired off with her ex-lover Narciso, and the real Turk with his long-lost gypsy love, Zaida).

Taking its cue from Selim's words on first entering Fiorilla's marital home - "Beauty such as yours deserves a temple" - Christopher Woods's one-piece set presents a circular fane surrounded by a giant shower-curtain, onto which are projected roseate views of the Bay of Naples. Presumably designed originally for the stage of David Salomon's intimate little theatre in Tunbridge Wells - from which this young company took its name and from which it has just been so unceremoniously ejected - the set, like the company, has found a welcoming new home in the 500-seat Elizabethan-style school theatre at Christ's Hospital, Horsham. And if the woody acoustic may be a bit boomy, especially when Rossini begins banging his big bass drum, there's a lovely balance between pit and stage, and no danger of young voices having to strain to fill the space (although one can't pretend that Jonathan Boyd's overparted tenor entirely justified the inclusion of Narciso's optional Act 2 aria).

Of the three principals, Matthew Hargreaves's Turk consistently energises the stage whenever he is on it, while Anthony Marber delivers a brilliant comic turn or two as the cuckolded "Pappataci" who finally decides he can no longer keep quiet about his wife's infidelities. As Fiorilla herself, Marguerite Krull may not boast the most purely beautiful mezzo-soprano, but she handles it with a real sense of style and musicianship, easily straddling the part's wide tessitura and chameleon changes of mood, and, in her final moments, cast out on the streets and forced to return to her parents ("Must I go back to Sorrento?" she sings, in an amusing reversal of the usual tenorial sentiments), attaining true tragic status. But this being Rossini, she doesn't leap to her death in Vesuvius, but repents her wicked ways and returns to her husband, while the Turk sails away with his gypsy.

In a little speech at the end of Sunday night's show, Simon Callow, under the guise of thanking his technical crew, put in a pre-emptive bid for sympathy, spelling out the fact that the whole production had been put together in a ludicrously short two and half weeks. He needn't have worried - the opera's finale, courtesy of Rossini's unknown collaborator, ensures that everyone leaves in a mood of general goodwill - but did he really have to make his cast walk that perilously steep plank to take their curtain- calls? The place may be a Hospital, but I'm not sure Matron is up to manning the ER.

Further performances: 7pm tonight, then 16, 19, 21, 23 Aug, Christ's Hospital, Horsham (booking: 0181-300 1155); and 7.30pm 28, 30 Aug, 2, 4, 6 Sept, Tyne Theatre & Opera House, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (booking: 0191-232 0899)

Mark Pappenheim