Il turco in Italia, Royal Opera House, London

Michael Church
Tuesday 06 April 2010 11:59

Gioachino Rossini was just 22 when he dashed off this high-spirited crowd-pleaser, in which a horny young wife swaps her doting sugar-daddy for a swashbuckling Turk.

But two centuries on it can still dazzle musically, and pack a very topical punch. For what Fiorilla craves is less sexual gratification than novelty pure and simple: she’d be entirely at home in the Noughties culture of shopping-and-fucking. But the opera is also a magnificent hommage to Mozart, who died a year before Rossini was born. It has the lightness and intricacy of ‘Cosi fan tutte’, and it even borrows that opera’s pivotal character: the string-pulling Don Alfonso is reincarnated as the playwright Prosdocimo, whose human puppets helplessly do his bidding.

And how appropriate that Sir Tom Allen, Covent Garden’s inimitable Alfonso, should also be the perfect Prosdocimo: his voice may be no great shakes these days, but his stage presence becomes ever more electrifying. But when this production was created by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier five years ago, it was as a vehicle for Cecilia Bartoli: one reason why this revival has been eagerly awaited is because Fiorilla is now sung by the Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, and the difference could not be more dramatic. Whereas Bartoli (a mezzo) turned the whole thing into a vocal circus stunt, Kurzak’s performance is so seamlessly natural that one believes her every petulant gesture, and her high coloratura has a wonderfully unforced delicacy.

Leiser and Caurier have got their cast to play the comedy absolutely straight: the wicked visual jokes with which this exquisitely-designed and beautifully-sung show is studded are all theirs. The first scene to make me laugh out loud was the meeting between Fiorilla and her too-gorgeous Turk (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo in magnificent voice), like two cats working themselves up into a frenzy of desire (brilliantly choreographed by movement director Leah Hausman). The second came immediately after as - reclining in post-coital bliss beneath a painting of Vesuvius in mid-eruption - they were interrupted by the arrival of Fiorilla’s husband Don Geronio (Alessandro Corbelli as a bemused Groucho Marx). The audience fell about when Kurzak later tamed the frantically frustrated Corbelli by stripping him naked: indeed, with the chorus of Gypsies doing the same to blissfully unwary tourists on the beach, you could say this was the evening’s leitmotiv. I won’t spoil the fun by giving away the final succession of coups de theatre: just go if you can.

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