Il Turco In Italia, Royal Opera House, London

There's magic in the madness
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The Independent Culture

There's going over the top and there's going into orbit. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier are plainly setting their sights on the latter trajectory with their wacky staging of Rossini's wackiest confection, Il turco in Italia.

There's going over the top and there's going into orbit. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier are plainly setting their sights on the latter trajectory with their wacky staging of Rossini's wackiest confection, Il turco in Italia.

Yes, it can safely be said that they go for broke and then some with this delusional tale of wayward wives, cuckolded husbands, misguided lovers and clashing cultures. You couldn't make it up. Well, you could if you did as Rossini's librettist Felice Romani did and wrote yourself into the scenario. It's him - in the figure of Prosdocimo ("a poet", which is pushing it a bit) whom we see emerging through the curtains as the overture, with its endearing horn and trumpet obbligatos, chugs its way home under the sound but hardly scintillating direction of Adam Fischer.

Prosdocimo is played to the hilt in this production by the wonderful Thomas Allen, relishing every bon mot as if there'll never be another quite as good. But even he (the librettist, that is) didn't reckon on Leiser and Caurier.

Think 1960s - Vespas, cool cars, quiffs and drainpipes; think Fellini; think saucy seaside postcards. And bring sunglasses. Christian Fenouillat's sets and Agostino Cavalca's costumes overdose on primary colours, which is precisely what Leiser and Caurier prescribe. They might just as well hang out a sign above each scene saying "wish you were here". But you are, and on the whole you are rather glad.

Rossini's controlled anarchy needs to sail close to the wind. This staging gives it a stiff following breeze. No one's looking for method in the madness, just madness in the method. If the libretto calls for a band of gypsies, make them all-singing, all-dancing gypsies. If Turkish coffee is a euphemism for sex, play it to the hilt, so to speak, in a pink satin bedroom where the wall is adorned with a lurid print of Vesuvius erupting. From Naples with love. It's that kind of show. Overstate the obvious, embrace the absurd, tickle the fancy. If the ratio of wit to slapstick had been a tad higher, then so too would my rating.

But Rossini isn't often this much fun. The spirit was infectious and in the case of Cecilia Bartoli positively contagious. As Fiorilla, a flighty housewife with a frumpy husband, she was the sunny, smiling, and all-too-acceptable face of adultery, flirting as insatiably with the cartoonish contortions of Rossini's coloratura as with Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's swarthy Prince Selim.

Bartoli's pneumatic way with that coloratura is now apt to sound like a parody of itself, a cross between yodelling and gargling. But such is our fascination with the fact that she can do it at all, to say nothing of the zest with which she deploys it, that we buy it wholesale as authenticated Rossini style. Hers is an offer we can't refuse. There is her relish for the words, her rapturous way of making magic with the tender application of a single phrase, which she'll lift and nurture for a moment longer than others might. Her personality is irresistible. The voice may not be what it was (too much pumping on the pyrotechnics) but the artistry is untarnished.

So quite a handful, this Fiorilla. The men in her life do well to hold their own. There's the obsessive "rocker" Don Narciso whom Barry Banks fires up with unrelenting desperation, inhaling the scent from a pair of Fiorilla's shoes before wacking out his top C. And there's Fiorilla's dowdy husband Don Geronio, played with delicious exasperation by Alessandro Corbelli, whose tongue-twisting rant about female foibles leaves us all winded.

In the end, Fiorilla dons the grey dress of contrition and returns to her husband. Of course she does. But Leiser and Caurier aren't about to be as tidy as Rossini and his "on-stage" librettist Prosdocimo. Just before the curtain falls, a scantily clad beach-bum crosses the stage. What does Fiorilla do? Guess.

In rep to 11 June (020-7304 4000; www.royalopera.org)

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